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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

How to Make Peace With Your Credit Cards

Consumers are increasingly dissatisfied with their credit cards, according to a new survey conducted by J.D. Power and Associates. The survey found customer satisfaction at its lowest point since 2007, when data tracking began.

The culprits: higher fees and rate increases. About 20% of survey respondents reported having been hit with a rate increase so far this year, double the number for the same period in 2008, and 14% of customers reported incurring late fees, up from 11% a year ago.

Those charges are making the plight of consumers with credit card debt worse. The survey found that customers carrying balances had the biggest decline in satisfaction.

Consumers struggling to manage debt aren’t the only ones who’ve been hurt by the recent downturn. Credit-card companies have been hurt, too, triggering some of those higher fees and shorter credit lines.

“When the economy turned, not only did it impact [banks’] stock prices -- their financial situation -- but also their customers all started to suffer, so there were defaults, and there were late payments,” says Bill Hardekopf, the CEO of, a credit-card comparison site. “What credit-card issuers started to do was cut their financial risk,” Hardekopf says.

New legislation passed this year is designed to offer consumers more protection. New regulations setting the notification period for rate changes and the schedule for bill payments went into effect in August, and other rules will take effect in February. Many banks are making changes to customers’ accounts now, before the new rules restrict their ability to do so.

Between the new regulation and the recent credit crunch, the bottom line for consumers is that credit standards are tightening – banks are looking to reduce the risk of lending, and the government is trying to prevent consumers from getting in too far over their heads. That means some rude surprises for some consumers who suddenly don’t have the access to credit they expected. However, consumers taking the long view should see these changes as good news, says Curtis Arnold, the founder of

“We’re going to be less likely to get into trouble in terms of credit card debt. We’re going to have more consumer protections,” Arnold says. “It’s going to ultimately lead to a lot better consumer experience.”

Here are a few commonly reported frustrations about the credit-card industry – and a few tips on how to keep them from getting to you:

Late Payment Fees

These fees are taking the biggest bite out of credit card customers’ satisfaction, according to the J.D. Power and Associates survey. The solution? Don’t just pay your bill on time – pay it early, so you can be sure it will be processed in time to avoid a fee, Hardekopf says.

“Pay all your bills on time,” he adds. Late payments on other bills can hurt your credit score, which could leave you vulnerable to other nasty surprises from your credit-card company.

When the CARD Act takes full effect in February, credit-card companies will be required to get a customer’s permission before processing a charge that would incur an over-limit fee. The law also tightens standards on practices that make it easier to get a late fee, like changing the payment due date each month or setting a deadline over the weekend or during the middle of the day. Fees will also have to be “reasonable and proportional,” according to guidelines developed by the Federal Reserve, says Chi Chi Wu, a staff attorney for the National Consumer Law Center, an advocacy group that follows the credit industry.

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