Credit cards raise penalty rates, fees

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:51

    NEW YORK — If you mess up your credit card payments, it's going to cost you a lot of money, according to a survey released on July 28 by the consumer advocacy group Consumer Action. Penalty rates for late payments — or going over your credit limit or bouncing a payment check — have risen to an average of 24.23 percent from 21.91 percent last year, the study found. And more than 44 percent of banks impose so-called universal default rate hikes, which boost the rate on your credit card if you're late paying another creditor or if your credit score falls, it found. That's up from 39 percent of card issuers two years ago. Some of the higher rates charged by credit card issuers reflect Federal Reserve action starting last year to boost short-term interest rates. The Fed has raised rates 2.25 percentage points since June 2004. Because credit card penalty rates often are pegged to banks' prime lending rates, they've risen as the Fed has raised rates. Still, Linda Sherry, a spokeswoman for Consumer Action, which is based in San Francisco, said the universal default and penalty rates "are simply unfair" to consumers. "We feel the penalty rates are assessed too fast, often after just one late payment," Sherry said. "It's not just people in financial difficulty. Anybody can be caught in this web, say by going on vacation and missing a payment. "The punishment just doesn't fit the crime." She said that universal default rate hikes are "overkill," adding: "What business is it of theirs if you have a late payment with another company?" Along with higher interest rates, consumers who don't pay on time also face penalty fees. The average fee for a late payment was more than $27, while the average fee for a bounced payment check was nearly $29 and the average fee for account balances that were over the limit exceeded $30. The Federal Reserve actions also have prompted a number of credit card issuers to adopt a variable rate rather than a fixed rate on their cards so they can take advantage of Fed rate increases. This year's survey found 118 cards with variable rates, up from 99 a year earlier. The average interest rate on the cards was 12.96 percent, up from 12.12 percent in 2004. The number of fixed-rate cards dropped to 28 from 42 a year ago, while the rate dropped to 11.15 percent from 11.6 percent a year ago. The study noted that exact year-to-year comparisons were difficult because there have been a number of mergers among credit card issuers and there also have been a lot of new card products introduced. These new cards come at a cost, however. The study found that 35.6 percent of cards offer rewards, such as cash, miles, auto purchase points or gasoline, up from 23 percent a year ago. Although more than two-thirds of the cards carried no annual fees, the annual charge on the remaining one-third rose to $43.27 from $37.33 in 2004.