Bank credit-card fees face new scrutiny by consumer bureau

Bloomberg NewsOctober 2, 2013 

— Credit-card issuers may face new limits on fees and greater disclosure requirements as the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau pledges more scrutiny after a 2009 law that revamped regulation of the business.

“The CARD Act brought better consumer protections and fairness to the marketplace, but we found there is more work to be done,” CFPB Director Richard Cordray said in remarks prepared for a hearing the agency was holding Wednesday in Chicago.

The Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009 limited lenders’ ability to raise interest rates, curbed late fees and forced lenders to seek customers’ approval to apply over-limit fees. Now the bureau will examine whether certain cards impose undue fees and whether issuers adequately disclose terms and conditions, Cordray said.

New CFPB action on credit cards could affect major lenders by limiting fees they can collect or restricting marketing techniques. The six biggest U.S. credit-card issuers are JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup, American Express, Capital One Financial and Discover Financial Services.

The CFPB published a report on the card business Wednesday, using data from before the 2009 law was published through December 2012, Cordray said.

In his remarks, Cordray said the law saved consumers $4 billion in 2012 by cracking down on how late fees and over-limit penalties are assessed, according to CFPB research. The total cost of credit on the cards, which includes all fees and finance charges, declined by 2 percentage points.

Cordray also complimented banks for voluntarily streamlining their credit-card disclosure forms.

“The card agreements we studied from the largest card issuers have decreased by more than 2,000 words on average, and that readability has gone up, making the market more accessible and transparent for consumers,” Cordray said in his remarks. “This is not something the CARD Act required.”

The agency will “keep a close eye” on how card issuers impose application fees, and whether they merit CFPB action, Cordray said.

The 2009 law limits upfront fees that exceed 25 percent of the card’s credit limit, a provision intended to stamp out what were referred to in the report as “fee harvester” cards. Since application fees are exempt from the limit, there is potential for consumer harm, Cordray said.

Cordray also said that the CFPB will study “deferred interest” cards that allow zero interest to start, but impose interest retroactively if the balance is not paid by a certain date. The data indicate that 40 percent of subprime borrowers end up being charged the interest.

The CFPB also is examining the quality of disclosures lenders make about rewards programs associated with the cards, and about payment grace periods.

The CFPB will maintain its crackdown on credit-card add-on products, such as debt cancellation and credit monitoring, Cordray said.

The agency has already brought cases against Capital One and Discover for marketing such products in a deceptive manner. JPMorgan agreed last month to pay $389 million in restitution and penalties over allegations it unfairly charged customers for credit monitoring products.

“We will continue to use both our supervisory and enforcement authorities to protect consumers by rooting out unfair, deceptive or abusive acts or practices,” Cordray said.

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