Stars and Stripes

Sneaky credit card fees vex overseas shoppers
Foreign transaction fee can add three percent to charges

Terry Boyd, August 13, 2006

Editor's Note: A correction to this story was issued Aug. 14. The article below has been amended to include the corrected information.

BAUMHOLDER, Germany -- Gabriella Burke got an unpleasant surprise after she used her U.S.-issued credit card to buy six carpets in Turkey last year.

When she checked her online credit card statement, the amount on her credit-card bill was significantly higher than the final purchase price, said Burke, a Department of Defense Dependents Schools teacher at Neubrücke Elementary School near Baumholder. When she subtracted what was supposed to be the total purchase price from the amount on her Chase Visa credit card bill, she found the statement price was 3 percent higher.

Initially, she suspected the merchant. But the merchant had been "so thorough" Burke said, walking her through the currency conversion from Turkish lira to dollars, even copying the bank transactions for her, showing her each charge and the exact total.

When she contacted her credit card company, a service representative told her the difference was a bank fee, not merchant deception. JPMorgan Chase & Co., her credit-card issuer, added a 3 percent fee.

The rug purchase wasn't the only such incident. When she stayed at a Sheraton hotel near the Frankfurt International Airport, what was supposed to be a 129 euro per night credit card charge showed up again 3 percent higher, the difference a $4.68 "exchange rate adjustment" by the credit card company.

Exchange rate adjustment, foreign transaction fee, currency conversion fee -- all are terms for the same fee some U.S. banks and credit-card issuers have been charging for overseas purchases for perhaps 10 years.

Of the 3 percent Burke was charged in addition to her Turkish carpet purchase, 1 percent goes to Visa International for the cost of actually providing her credit card company the foreign currency that went to pay the merchant. The remaining 2 percent was simply a fee added by Chase, according to credit card experts.

JPMorgan Chase & Co. did not respond to repeated queries for information by deadline.

"Pure profit"

Whatever they are called, the undisclosed fees charged by the bank cards "are pure profit for no additional value added," said Charles Leocha, a former soldier, author, Boston-based travel journalist and founder of the travel Web site

The additional fees aren't listed largely due to U.S. bank deregulation, according to Robert Manning, author of "Credit Card Nation," about Americansns' use of credit. Over the last decade, nationally chartered banks, which can be regulated only by Congress, bought up more-tightly regulated regional banks, said Manning, who is also director of the Center for Consumer Financial Services at Rochester Institute of Technology.

Credit card issuers used to disclose the foreign currency/dollar exchange rate including any added fees, but they stopped, asserting it was no longer required, he said.

After Visa or MasterCard has passed on the 1 percent fee for foreign currency to the banks, the bank now has a choice, Manning said: "It can charge the customer zero and absorb the fee. It can ... recover the fee. Or it can get really greedy and charge 2 percent."

Representatives of Visa International and MasterCard did not respond to repeated queries for information by deadline.

Because the fee is relatively small, Burke didn't notice it until she made a large purchase, "and then it was so glaring!" she said. "I assumed I hadn't read the fine print" -- only to find out there wasn't any.

In July, major banks and credit card issuers including Chase agreed to pay $332 million to settle a class-action suit charging that they'd concealed foreign transaction fees back to 1996. While commercial banks and credit card issuers involved, such as Chase, MasterCard, Visa International and others, admit no wrongdoing, they have agreed to pay consumers such as Burke a refund, according to attorneys at the law firms who brought the suit.

(Among commercial banks, CapitalOne is the notable exception in that it doesn't charge the foreign fees.)

The deal -- scheduled for final review Sept. 11 by a New York Federal Court -- may put hundreds or thousands of dollars into the pockets of individual consumers, and the fees are a hot topic for overseas Americans. But it may not end the fees.

Hidden fee

"What bothered me was that [the foreign transaction fee] was hidden," not listed as a separate fee on her statement, Burke said. "The first thing I thought was, 'A lot of people who are military have no idea,â,'"he said. What about all the people who use the economy to make a lot of credit card purchases? she wondered.

Francis X. Ryan, a logistics management specialist for the 5th Signal Command who has been in Germany for 18 years, is concerned about how hard will it be to document a decade's worth of transactions.

"What are they going to take for documentation?" Ryan asked.

Despite the settlement, commercial banks probably won't stop charging the fees, Manning said. Even with the foreign transaction fees, credit cards and debit cards give the best currency conversion rate, better than changing money or using traveler's checks.

The most irksome issue, said Burke and others, is the ever-growing amounts credit card and debit card companies add to transactions in interest, multiple ATM fees, late fees, currency conversion charges and undisclosed foreign transaction fees.

"They're making money off us so many different ways," Burke said.


This story ran on Stars and Stripes on August 13, 2006.