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Congress moves to regulate credit cards

Lawmakers have been getting an earful from disgruntled consumers.

By Staff writer / May 12, 2009

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, alongside consumer Roxana Araujo, speaks to the press in this April. The Senate is on track to pass a credit card reform measure this week.

Mike Theiler/Reuters

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Washington

For the 70 percent of US households that use credit cards, many of the nasty surprises in the fine print of credit agreements are on a path to extinction.

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The Senate is on track to pass credit card reform this week, likely with a big bipartisan vote. The House passed its version of the bill late last month. President Obama says he wants a bill to sign by Memorial Day.

Even if Congress fails to act, the Federal Reserve already has passed rules of its own to ban many of the most abusive practices by July 2010. These include double-cycle billing, where consumers are billed for both their past and current statements; arbitrary increases in interest rates on existing balances; and credit-card companies’ tactic of allocating any payments in excess of the “minimum amount due” to lower interest-rate balances first.

Lawmakers are getting such an earful from voters on the woes of credit-card debt that the Congress could wind up with a stronger package of consumer protections, including a revival of state laws banning usury.

The bipartisan agreement reached by the Senate Banking Committee this week allows rate increases on delinquent accounts only after 60 days. The House version of the bill allows credit card companies to raise rates on past-due balances only after 30 days. In addition, the Senate bill would block credit-card companies from raising rates on new accounts for a year and requires a 45-day notice of any rate increase.

“This issue is finding a tipping point,” said Sen. Christopher Dodd (D) of Connecticut, the lead sponsor of the Credit Cardholders’ Bill of Rights Act, in a statement opening the floor debate Monday. After 20 years of failed efforts on credit-card reform, what’s shifting votes on Capitol Hill now is “the conditions our constituents are living with, the number of people unemployed, the obvious problem of foreclosure rates,” he added.

An e-mail to Sen. Bernard Sanders (I) of Vermont, published this week, chronicled the problems of a New Jersey woman who said her credit card company arbitrarily raised her interest rates from 7 percent to 22 percent.

“This is outrageous! I have not missed a payment and my credit rating is in the high 800's. How can they keep getting away with this?” she wrote.