7 Secrets Credit Card Companies Don't Want You to Know

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Using a credit card.
Getty ImagesYou may love your credit card, but once you're hit with a rising interest rate, you'll find out it may not love you back.
By Paul Sisolak

If you think about it, you've got a close, intimate relationship with your credit card. The both of you have been inseparable through each daily transaction. You treat it right by paying off your monthly balance on time. You know all your card's important details, such as its credit limit and interest rate, right down to memorizing every reward and benefit. You might even know your card number by heart. Unfortunately, there's some bad news that could be financially heartbreaking:

Your credit card company may be holding out on you.

The fact is, you've been kept in the dark about several secrets because your financial benefit comes at your card issuer's financial loss. Read on to find out some of the things your carrier doesn't want you to know.

1. Fixed rates aren't really fixed. Issuers can raise your APR whenever they choose. This information isn't necessarily a blatant secret, but it'll be hidden so deeply in the fine print of your cardholder's agreement that card companies are hoping you miss it. Commonly, we're enticed to sign on with a fixed introductory interest rate that may change at the company's will. You have the right to be notified 15 days before a potential rate increase, but to stay on top of them, check your mail; you'll receive notifications in a thin, discreet white envelope.

2. One late payment ... two penalties. In a perfect world, one late payment equals one penalty fee; on-time payments equal zero fees. In this imperfect world, you can be penalized with two surcharges on one delinquency, and you won't know about them until you've been charged. These can come in the form of a late fee (up to $35), and a penalty rate -- a permanent interest increase that can jack up your APR to as high as 29.99 percent! The 2009 CARD Act sought to place limits on these increases, though the details aren't widely known by the average cardholder.

3. Twice the interest in one month. Another one-two financial punch comes in the form of a legal maneuver which allows your card company to impose two months' interest for just one month of late balance payments. For example: You're charged twice the interest for a partial balance payment in October even though you paid on time in September. Called double-cycle billing, the card issuer looks at your average daily balance over two consecutive months and charges you higher interest based on the month you carried a higher balance. It's not even the interest that makes this a problem, but the principle of being punished for good financial behavior.

4. Disgraceful grace periods. How many of us who've made big-ticket purchases have been thankful for the grace period? Say you charge $1,000 to your card and pay $250 by the due date to hold over your creditors. Most cards carry grace periods up to about 25 days, allowing you to pay off the remainder, interest-free. But in the spirit of profiteering, many providers are reducing the grace period to just 20 days, while some are doing away with them altogether. That means you'll get charged interest on every purchases, even with timely repayments. Avoid this fall from credit grace, and check how many grace period days your card company offers.

5. No card limits -- just with limits. Many consumers in possession of a no-limit charge card discover they have a revolving spending cap -- let's use $5,000 -- but only learn of it after racking up $7,000 in purchases, leaving them stuck with a remaining $2,000, plus interest, to pay off. Why is this so? Your card company advertised your plastic as no limits, but it's really set at a no preset limit, based on your own month-to-month spending behavior and habits. Before snatching up a no-limit card, ask your provider if the limit is predetermined, and be careful not to spend beyond that amount.

6. Minimum payments to the maximum. It's the nature of the credit beast: The longer you stay in debt, the more interest credit card companies can charge, and the more money they make. In the past, card holders had a 5 percent minimum monthly payment. This became problematic for creditors because people were motivated to pay off their balances more quickly. So they lowered the monthly minimum to 2 percent. But now, with smaller repayment requirements, we're prone to spend more and accrue more debt each month. Experts maintain that this move by card companies adds thousands of dollars in interest, creating a repayment schedule that could last years, if not decades.

7. Late payments to any creditor can raise your APR. We hope that our creditors aren't wishing us to slip up on our repayments, but if there's one thing to take away from this article, it's to be on time paying down your debt. One late or partial payment, be it your credit card, car or mortgage payment, can jack up your total APR across each line of credit in your name. Can you imagine your auto or home loan going from 3 percent to 29 percent? Just like we've got the CARD Act, creditors have something called the universal default clause, which insures them against people who pose a credit risk. (Not like they need it.)

Paul Sisolak writes for GoBankingRates.com, a source for the interest rates on savings accounts, CDs, mortgages, auto loans and more.

7 Secrets Credit Card Companies Don't Want You to Know
Yes they can.

The CARD Act did get rid of the most outrageous abuse: they can no longer increase the interest rate on existing balances unless you go 60 days past due.

However, you need to remember that:
  • Most credit card interest rates are variable and are linked to the prime rate. Your high rate will only go higher when interest rates increase.
  • Based upon risk, your credit card company can still increase your interest rate on all future purchases. Your existing balances are protected, but future purchases would be at the higher rate. And determining risk is not limited to your behavior on your existing card. If you miss a payment with another lender, that could lead to an increase on all of your credit cards.
  • After 12 months, they can increase your rate for almost any reason. But the increased rate only applies to future purchases, and they need to give you 45 days notice.

Credit cards are incredibly expensive ways to borrow money. If you use a card, your goal should be to pay off the balance in full every month. Then, the interest rate doesn't matter.

Bottom line: If you do have debt, you should never be paying the purchase APR. Look for a balance transfer, or get a personal loan to cut your interest rate. And take a long hard look at your spending to put more money towards paying off that debt.
 

No, they are not.

There is a big difference between a 0% balance transfer (where the interest is waived during the promotional period, discussed above) and 0% purchase financing offered at many stores (where the interest is only deferred).

I regularly encourage people to use balance transfers to help them pay off their debt faster. With a balance transfer, interest is switched off or reduced during the promotional period. Once the promotional period is over, interest starts to accrue on a go-forward basis. This can take years off your debt repayment.

But stores offer 0 percent financing at the checkout. With a lot of these programs, interest is charged from the purchase date if you do not pay off the balance in full during the promotional period. So, if you have a 12-month 0 percent offer -– and do not pay off the balance in 12 months -– then in month 13 you will be charged a full 13 months of interest. They retroactively charge interest, and it will be like you never had a 0 percent offer at all.

 

This is a common practice. Online, Apple (AAPL) does this, via their partnership with Barclaycard (BCS).

And stores like Walmart (WMT) do the same thing.

Bottom line: I don't like deferred interest deals. Most people do not understand the difference between waived and deferred interest, and this practice feels deceptive. If you take one of these offers, make sure you pay off the balance in full before the promotion expires.
 

Not always.

Credit card companies have different rates for different types of transactions. The interest rate charged on a purchase (high) is different from a balance transfer APR (low).

Before the CARD Act, banks would apply your payment to the lowest APR balance first. Imagine you have a $1,000 balance. $500 is at 0 percent (balance transfer), and the other $500 is at 18 percent (purchase). If you make a $100 payment, banks would apply that to the balance transfer. That way, they reduce the balance transfer (at 0 percent) to $400, while protecting the $500 purchase balance (at 18 percent).

The CARD Act changed that. Banks now need to apply payments to the highest interest rate first. But this only applies to payments higher than the minimum due.

If you only pay the minimum due every month, your payment will still likely be applied to the lowest interest rate balance first.

Bottom line: You should never spend and have a balance transfer on the same credit card. Banks can only "trap" balances when you have multiple balance types on one card.
Not exactly true.

The CARD Act has stopped the handout of T-shirts on the steps of the school libraries, but they can still give sign-on bonuses. And they advertise on campus. For example, Citibank (C) has a "Thank You Preferred" card for college students. If you spend $500 in the first three months, you get 2,500 thank you points as a bonus. That is $25 of value.

Bottom line: I actually find this worse. Before, you got a free T-shirt just for signing up. Now, the credit card companies encourage spend on the card for the "free gift."

In the past, banks would charge you a fee if you went over your credit limit. Today, the CARD Act requires banks to receive your consent to charge an over-limit fee. So, in most cases, banks just eliminated those fees -- which is good news (kind of).

You can still go over your credit limit, if the bank approves your transaction. But the full amount by which you've exceeded your limit will be part of your minimum payment come the next bill, which could cause a payment shock.

More importantly, utilization (the percentage of your available credit that you use) is a big factor in your credit score. Your credit score determines the price you pay for credit. So, if you're over-limit on an account, you are considered riskier. That can result in the credit card company increasing your interest rate. And it could also result in other lenders increasing your rates with them. So you do pay, but it's an indirect cost.

Bottom line: We're glad the fee is gone, but you still need to be diligent and try to avoid going over your limit. If you pay your balance in full every month but are frequently bumping up against your credit limit, ask for a credit line increase.

Completely false.

I have heard from so many people that the way to eliminate overdraft fees is to opt out of overdraft protection. But it is impossible to completely opt out of overdraft.

Federal regulation requires consumers to opt into overdraft protection only for debit and ATM transactions.

But, the regulation does not cover checks and electronic transactions (including bill-pay and monthly direct debits, like gym memberships). The banks have all the power. If they approve the transaction, you would be charged an overdraft fee (typically $35 per transaction at banks and $25 at credit unions). If they decline the transaction, then you would be charged an NSF fee (non-sufficient funds), which is usually just as expensive as the overdraft fee.

Bottom line: You can't opt out of all overdraft fees. To avoid them, keep a buffer or find an account, like Ally, that doesn't charge those junk fees.
Not always true.

To be protected, you need to report the fraudulent transaction within 60 days. Otherwise, you give up a lot of your rights.

On ATM/debit cards, the bank can make you responsible for up to $500 of fraud if you report more than two days (but less than 60 days) after the transaction. On a credit card, you would never be liable for more than $50 (and most banks won't even hold you accountable for $50.)

One area where you will almost always lose is when your Personal Identification Number is used. If someone manages to get your PIN and takes money out of your account, then the bank will almost always assume that you authorized the transaction. Make sure you change your PIN often and never write it down.

Bottom line: Avoiding liability it your responsibility. Track your transactions regularly and call as soon as you detect any suspicious activity. And make sure you never share your PIN with anyone, or make it obvious.
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