About the New Credit Card Rules

After receiving over 60,000 comments, federal banking regulators passed new rules late last year to curb harmful credit card industry practices. These new rules go into effect in 2010 and could provide relief to many debt-burdened consumers. Here are those practices, how the new regulations address them and what you need to know about these new rules.

1. Late Payments

Some credit card companies went to extraordinary lengths to cause cardholder payments to be late. For example, some companies set the date to August 5, but also set the cutoff time to 1:00 pm so that if they received the payment on August 5 at 1:05 pm, they could consider the payment late. Some companies mailed statements out to their cardholders just days before the payment due date so cardholders wouldn’t have enough time to mail in a payment. As soon as one of these tactics worked, the credit card company would slap the cardholder with a $35 late fee and hike their APR to the default interest rate. People saw their interest rates go from a reasonable 9.99 percent to as high as 39.99 percent overnight just because of these and similar tricks of the credit card trade.

The new rules state that credit card companies cannot consider a payment late for any reason “unless consumers have been provided a reasonable amount of time to make the payment.” They also state that credit companies can comply with this requirement by “adopting reasonable procedures designed to ensure that periodic statements are mailed or delivered at least 21 days before the payment due date.” However, credit card companies cannot set cutoff times earlier than 5 pm and if creditors set due dates that coincide with dates on which the US Postal Service does not deliver mail, the creditor must accept the payment as on-time if they receive it on the following business day.

This rule mostly impacts cardholders who often pay their bill on the due date instead of a little early. If you fall into this category, then you will want to pay close attention to the postmarked date on your credit card statements to make sure they were sent at least 21 days before the due date. Of course, you should still strive to make your payments on time, but you should also insist that credit card companies consider on-time payments as being on time. Furthermore, these rules do not go into effect until 2010, so be on the lookout for an increase in late-payment-inducing tricks during 2009.

2. Allocation of Payments

Did you know that your credit card account likely has more than one interest rate? Your statement only shows one balance, but the credit card companies divide your balance into different types of charges, such as balance transfers, purchases and cash advances.

Here’s an example: They lure you with a zero or low percent balance transfer for several months. After you get comfortable with your card, you charge a purchase or two and make all your payments on time. However, purchases are assessed an 18 percent APR, so that portion of your balance is costing you the most — and the credit card companies know it and are counting on it. So, when you send in your payment, they apply all of your payment to the zero or low percent portion of your balance and let the higher interest portion sit there untouched, racking up interest charges until all of the balance transfer portion of the balance is paid off (and this could take a long time because balance transfers are typically larger than purchases because they consist of multiple, previous purchases). Essentially, the credit card companies were rigging their payment system to maximize its profits — all at the expense of your financial wellbeing.

The new rules state that the amount paid above the minimum monthly payment must be distributed across the different portions of the balance, not just to the lowest interest portion. This reduces the amount of interest charges cardholders pay by reducing higher-interest portions sooner. It may also reduce the amount of time it takes to pay off balances.

This rule will only affect cardholders who pay more than the minimum monthly payment. If you only make the minimum monthly payment, then you will still likely end up taking years, possibly decades, to pay off your balances. However, if you adopt a policy of always paying more than the minimum, then this new rule will directly benefit you. Of course, paying more than the minimum is always a good idea, so don’t wait until 2010 to start.

3. Universal Default

Universal default is one of the most controversial practices of the credit card industry. Universal default is when Bank A raises your credit card account’s APR when you are late paying Bank
B, even if you’re not or have never been late paying Bank A. The practice gets more interesting when Bank A gives itself the right, through contractual disclosures, to increase your APR for any event impacting your credit worthiness. So, if your credit score lowers by one point, say “Goodbye” to your low, introductory APR. To make matters worse, this APR increase will be applied to your entire balance, not just on new purchases. So, that new pair of shoes you bought at 9.99 percent APR is now costing you 29.99 percent.

The new rules require credit card companies “to disclose at account opening the rates that will apply to the account” and prohibit increases unless “expressly permitted.” Credit card companies can increase interest rates for new transactions as long as they provide 45 days advanced notice of the new rate. Variable rates can increase when based on an index that increases (for example, if you have a variable rate that is prime plus two percent, and the prime rate increase one percent, then your APR will increase with it). Credit card companies can increase an account’s interest rate when the cardholder is “more than 30 days delinquent.”

This new rule impacts cardholders who make payments on time because, from what the rule says, if a cardholder is more than 30 days late in paying, all bets are off. So, as long as you pay on time and don’t open an account in which the credit card company discloses every possible interest rate to give itself permission to charge whatever APR it wants, you should benefit from this new rule. You should also pay close attention to notices from your credit card company and keep in mind that this new rule does not take effect until 2010, giving the credit card industry all of 2009 to hike interest rates for whatever reasons they can dream up.

4. Two-Cycle Billing

Interest rate charges are based on the average daily balance on the account for the billing period (one month). You carry a balance everyday and the balance might be different on some days. The amount of interest the credit card company charges is not based on the ending balance for the month, but the average of every day’s ending balance.

So, if you charge $5000 at the first of the month and pay off $4999 on the 15th, the company takes your daily balances and divides them by the number of days in that month and then multiplies it by the applicable APR. In this case, your daily average balance would be $2,333.87 and your finance charge on a 15% APR account would be $350.08. Now, imagine that you paid off that extra $1 on the first of the following month. You would think that you should owe nothing on the next month’s bill, right? Wrong. You’d get a bill for $175.04 because the credit card company charges interest on your daily average balance for 60 days, not 30 days. It is essentially reaching back into the past to drum-up more interest charges (the only industry that can legally travel time, at least until 2010). This is two-cycle (or double-cycle) billing.

The new rule expressly prohibits credit card companies from reaching back into previous billing cycles to calculate interest charges. Period. Gone… and good riddance!

5. High Fees on Low Limit Accounts

You may have seen the credit card advertisements claiming that you can open an account with a credit limit of “up to” $5000. The operative term is “up to” because the credit card company will issue you a credit limit based on your credit rating and income and often issues much lower credit limits than the “up to” amount. But what happens when the credit limit is a lot lower — I mean A LOT lower — than the advertised “up to” amount?

College students and subprime consumers (those with low credit scores) often found that the “up to” account they applied for came back with credit limits in the low hundreds, not thousands. To make things worse, the credit card company charged an account opening fee that swallowed up a large portion of the issued credit limit on the account. So, all the cardholder was getting was just a little more credit than he or she needed to pay for opening the account (is your head spinning yet?) and sometimes ended up charging a purchase (not knowing about the large setup fee already charged to the account) that triggered over-limit penalties — causing the cardholder to incur more debt than justified.

The new rules place restrictions on how much credit card companies can charge for these account setup or membership fees and requires that they spread out these fees over at least a six-month period if these fees consume more than 25 percent of the account’s credit limit.

What now?

It’s 2009 and these rules don’t take effect until 2010. So, credit card companies have one year to wreck havoc on consumers (not that they haven’t been doing so over the past 30 years). So, you’ll need to keep your eyes open for an increase in tricks designed to plummet you into more debt and make a habit of insisting that these companies abide by the new rules of the game once they kick into action in 2010. However, there are three universal points to live by to get the most out of these new rules: always read your cardholder agreement and notices, always pay on time and always pay more (much more) than the minimum monthly payment.

Time to Get Out of Debt

These new rules may also have other side effects. Some credit card companies are already lowering credit limits and increasing the minimum monthly payment amount from around two percent of the outstanding balance to as much as five percent. So, some cardholders may see their payments double and this could cause a lot of problems for cash-strapped consumers. This just means that there is no better time than now to start getting yourself out of debt and out from under the thumbs of the credit card banks.

There are a few ways to get out of debt. Bankruptcy is often an obvious option for people financially pinned against the wall, but the 2005 bankruptcy law revision made it more difficult for many consumers. Consumer credit counseling is another option that’s popular, but it involves more organizational relief than financial relief. Debt settlement is growing in popularity because it provides financial relief through negotiated reduction in the amount owed, but people looking to enroll with a debt settlement company should make sure they are dealing with a well-established, reputable company. Alternatively, some people trying to get out of debt can negotiate their own debt-reduction settlements with the help of do-it-yourself debt settlement kits. Do-it-yourself debt settlement kits are available online and are less expensive than a professional, third-party debt settlement program.

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