Pew study confirms unfair credit card practices intensify

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Credit cardsPew Charitable Trust confirmed what most of us consumers already know: credit card issuers continue to implement their most harmful practices, rushing to beat the deadline of the CARD Act.

The Pew Charitable Trust released "Still Waiting: 'Unfair or Deceptive' Credit Card Practices Continue as Americans Wait for New Reforms to Take Effect," which examines almost 400 credit cards advertisements by banks and credit unions offered in July 2009 and December 2008. The study found that 100% of the credit card companies continue practices that will be outlawed by the CARD Act. The lowest advertised interest rates have increased by more than 20% in the past year. None of the 12 largest banks currently issue cards that would meet the requirements of the CARD Act.

"It seems that a credit card issuer could gain a distinct competitive advantage by the early implementation of the provisions of the CARD Act. But that is not being done. It seems that issuers are turning their back on the public outcry for reform and instead want to raise rates as much as possible before these interest rate provisions go into effect in February 2010," Bill Hardekopf, CEO of LowCards.com and author of The Credit Card Guidebook, told me in an interview by email.

Pew found cardholders have not benefited from the historically low interest rates, even though the Federal Funds rate is almost 0%. The lowest advertised rates increased by more than 20% from December 2008 to July 2009, while the highest advertised rates increased 13% during that time period.

While the study didn't focus on this usse, WalletPop readers have reported that their fixed rate cards are being switched to variable-rate cards. Many of the increases will not be felt until the prime rate rises. These increases will remain hidden temporarily, but will hit consumers hard when the Fed raises interest rates.

Discover had the biggest jump in the lowest advertised rates, going from 9.99% to 12.99%. Bank of America, which is still on life-support from the government, had the largest increase in the highest advertised rates, from 14.99% to 18.24%.

The report also compared banks and credit unions. It confirms that credit unions offer lower rates and lower penalties than banks. Here are two key findings;

* Advertised rates were 20% lower at credit unions. These rates ranged from 9.9% to 13.75% annually at credit unions, compared to 12.29% to 17.99% annually for banks.

* Penalty charges at credit unions are less frequent and less severe than at banks. Credit union penalty interest rates averaged 17.99% compared to 28.99% at banks. In addition, these penalty interest rates at credit unions were less likely to last indefinitely. One-third would terminate after three to twelve months of on-time payments. They could last indefinitely at banks, even after on-time payments.

If you're not currently a member of a credit union, use the Credit Union locator to find one near you.

Lita Epstein has written more than 25 books including The Complete Idiot's Guide to Improving Your Credit Score.
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