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New credit card & gift protections begin August 22

New regulations will help limit credit card and gift card fees and require banks to re-evaluate interest rate hikes

August 17, 2010

Consumers Get New Credit Card & Gift Card Protections on August 22

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Starting August 22, new regulations will go into effect that will help limit credit card and gift card fees and require banks to periodically re-evaluate credit card interest rate hikes to see if higher rates are still justified. The new regulations implement consumer protections required under the CARD Act passed by Congress last year.

“Consumers are tired of getting stung by unreasonably high fees and getting penalized for such dubious reasons as not using their credit card enough,” said Pamela Banks, Senior Policy Counsel for Consumers Union. “These new protections will prohibit so-called inactivity fees and help put an end to excessive credit card fees that unfairly penalize consumers when they are late making a payment.”

The new regulations implement a number of important consumer protections, including:

Limits on the size of late fees: Credit card issuers will no longer be allowed to charge you a late payment fee that is larger than your minimum payment. Banks also cannot charge a late fee higher than $25 unless one of your last six payments has been late or if the bank can show that the costs associated with the late payment justify a higher fee.

Ban on multiple penalty fees for single violations: You cannot be charged more than one penalty fee for a single violation of your credit card agreement. For example, you cannot be charged both a late fee and a returned payment fee based on a single botched payment.

Ban on inactivity fees: Card issuers will no longer be allowed to charge you a fee for failing to use your account enough or for terminating your account. Your account can still be closed for inactivity by your card issuer.

More information about why your rate is going up: Since August 2009, card issuers have been required to give 45 days notice before raising your interest rate on future purchases. Now they must notify you of the reason they are imposing a rate hike, such as market conditions or a reduced credit score.

Interest rate increases must be re-evaluated: Interest rate increases dating back to January 1, 2009 and into the future must be periodically re-evaluated. When a card issuer raises your interest rate, it must review the increase every 6 months and reduce the rate in certain circumstances.

For most accounts, card issuers choose which factors to consider during the review. Card issuers must reduce the rate if the factors leading to the rate increase are no longer present or if they are not being applied when setting the APR for new accounts.

For consumers who experienced a rate hike because of market conditions between January 1, 2009 and February 21, 2010, card issuers must reduce the rate unless the increase can still be justified using the factors currently being applied to determine APRs for new accounts.

The first rate review must be completed by February 22, 2011. A rate review is not required when rates are hiked because of a change in the variable rate or when a promotional rate expires.

“Millions of consumers saw their interest rates jump through the roof in recent years, including many consumers who always paid their bills on time,” said Lauren Bowne, Staff Attorney for Consumers Union. “While the new regulations require a review of rate hikes, they give banks too much leeway that will allow them to continue gouging consumers by keeping high rates in place.”

New Gift Card Protections

In addition to the new credit card protections, the new regulations will help limit fees on gift cards. Under the new regulations, you cannot be charged a fee if you have used your gift card within the past 12 months. If a gift card remains unused for 12 months, gift card issuers can charge only one fee per month. There are no limits on the amount of the fee and you can still be charged a one-time fee for purchasing a gift card.

All funds on gift cards purchased beginning on August 22 cannot expire before five years. Beginning January 31, 2011, gift card issuers will be required to provide consumers with improved disclosures about these protections.

“A gift card shouldn’t lose its value just because a consumer doesn’t use it right away,” said Michelle Jun, Staff Attorney for Consumers Union. “Now consumers won’t have to rush out to use their gift cards just to avoid seeing the value of their gift rapidly disappear.”

Michael McCauley: 415-431-6747, ext 126, or David Butler or Kristina Edmunson: 202-462-6262