[Card Issuers Lure Debt Using Carrots, Sticks ...] ... But Crack Down on Delinquency

AS consumers pile on record-levels of credit-card debt, many card issuers are changing the terms of their agreements.

Some credit-card firms are starting to crank down credit lines for delinquent or overextended cardholders; add punitive interest rates for high-risk cardholders; and jack up late fees and over-limit fees.

Card issuers have begun to see a downturn in the way cardholders are paying their bills - and they're getting worried. Personal bankruptcies are up by 1.5 percent in the last year. Delinquencies on credit-card payments are rising, and the portion of credit-card debt that banks have declared uncollectible has risen to more than 4 percent.

The average American adult has eight to 10 credit cards, three to four of which are bank cards. And those who carry a balance now owe, on average, $3,900 on those three to four bankcards.

Now, more issuers are periodically reviewing customers' credit records, looking at how much debt they carry on other cards, and how many open lines of credit they have.

''You either fit into their formula that allows a certain amount of debt on other cards, or you don't,'' says Ruth Susswein, executive director of Bankcard Holders of America in Salem, Va.

Capital One Financial Corp. in Falls Church, Va., jacked up the annual percentage rate on some of its accounts it considered ''high risk'' from 12.9 percent to 24.9 percent. Company spokeswoman Diana Sun says the firm has had ''risk-based pricing'' since the mid-1980s.

What should consumers do?

CardTrak, a credit-card newsletter, advises people to close out credit-card accounts they don't use. Having too many accounts or too much available credit may impair a consumer's ability to qualify for lower interest rates. You shouldn't owe more than 20 percent of your gross income on credit cards.

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