Congress Catches on to Credit Card Industry's Abuse

Last week, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations held a hearing on credit card industry practices, featuring testimony from an Ohio consumer who had paid over $6,000 since 2001 for $3,200 in credit card charges on an account with Chase Bank. Thanks to relentless fees and interest charges slapped on his bill by the card issuer, his debt continued to balloon despite his good-faith efforts to pay it down. He isn’t the only one.

The credit card industry regularly engages in a number of abusive and unfair practices that make it difficult for indebted consumers to regain their financial footing. For example, many card issuers practice universal default, which entails increasing a cardholder’s interest rate retroactively, to the entire existing balance, because of a change in the cardholder’s credit score or behavior with another creditor. As described in a recent GAO report, an array of fees such as over-the-limit fees, late fees, and even fees to pay one’s bill via telephone have grown more common.

In fact, perhaps the most important thing to note about the credit card industry today is that the balance of power in the lending agreement rests entirely with the card issuer, who has the right to change the terms and conditions of the credit card agreement at any time and for any reason, provided they alert the consumer 15 days prior to making the change. Stretched consumers, many of whom are turning to credit cards to meet basic expenses like medical bills, are being pushed to the financial brink by these practices.

At Wednesday’s hearing, representatives from three national card issuers, including Chase Bank, attempted to describe and defend their practices to the Subcommittee. Coming on the heels of a Senate Banking Committee hearing in January, which also shone a spotlight on industry practices, it appears that Congress is beginning to exert some pressure on the credit card industry. The momentum will continue with the release of the documentary Maxed Out and the recent launch of Americans for Fairness in Lending, a coalition of advocacy groups that have come together in a national campaign to stop unfair lending practices.

In a sign that card issuers may be feeling the heat, two issuers recently announced changes in their policies, although there is still a long way to go. As Senator Levin pointed out during the hearing, every card issuer cannot be hauled before Congress to testify, and legislation or regulation may be needed to curtail unfair industry practices. Congress should continue to spotlight these practices, many of which can’t and won’t hold up to scrutiny, and then they should pass strong legislation to rein them in.