After clampdown, credit cards may hike fees

NEW YORK New rules for credit card companies will clamp down on when they can hike interest rates an
Sandusky Register Staff
May 24, 2010

NEW YORK

New rules for credit card companies will clamp down on when they can hike interest rates and force them to spell out their terms in plain English. But opening your monthly statement could still be a dizzying experience.

The wide variety of fees that card issuers charge -- balance transfer fees, foreign transaction fees, annual fees -- will probably keep climbing as banks try to make up for lost revenue, analysts say.

''Banks are very creative,'' said Philipp Schnabl, an assistant finance professor at New York University's Stern School of Business. ''They need to make money.''

Among other changes, the rules, expected to be signed into law Friday by President Barack Obama, will force card issuers to wait until customers are 60 days behind on payments before raising their interest rates.

Lenders would be required to restore the lower rate if cardholders paid their minimum balances on time for six months. The rules will also make it more difficult for people under 21 to get cards.

Once the regulations go into effect next year, customers will get to choose between being charged a fee for going over their credit limits, or simply not being able to exceed those limits at all.

But the host of other fees will remain unrestricted, as long as they are clearly disclosed to customers. Many card lenders have already hiked fees over the past several months, and probably will go further, said Bill Hardekopf, CEO of Lowcards.com, which tracks credit card offers.

''The fees are still a wide open game,'' he said.

Balance transfer and cash advance fees are typically 2 percent or 3 percent, but a few card issuers have recently raised them to 4 percent.

Another fee that's becoming more popular is the foreign transaction fee, which cardholders incur if they buy goods from a foreign retailer. That includes people vacationing anywhere outside the U.S., driving up the costs of a trip overseas.

This year, Discover Financial Services added a 2 percent fee for transactions made in foreign currencies. And Citigroup Inc. and Bank of America Corp. will charge 3 percent on all transactions outside the U.S., even those made in dollars.

Credit cards are lucrative for banks. Last year, even after issuers cut back offers and credit lines, they pulled in $169 billion from credit cards, industry consultant Robert K. Hammer says. About 60 percent of that was interest, 40 percent fees.

Already, the windows of time for introductory interest rates are shrinking, Hardekopf said. Offers of zero percent for 12 months ''are still out there, but they're a lot fewer and farther between,'' he said.

Industry analysts are also watching to see whether card companies make up lost revenue by trimming benefits, like cash back for purchases and airline miles. Citigroup has already put a three-year expiration date on its rewards points and warned its customers more changes could be on the way.

But rewards programs, low fees and low interest rates are what lure customers, said Greg McBride, senior financial analyst at Bankrate.com. Even responsible borrowers generate revenue, and they come with much less risk.

In the wake of the new rules, ''the reliance on 'gotcha' practices is coming to an end,'' McBride said. ''Issuers will need to make better credit decisions and be better lenders. Those that do will be very profitable. Those that can't will be behind the curve.''