WASHINGTON -- It's time the federal government began protecting Americans from unsafe credit cards, like it does from unsafe toasters and cars, consumer advocates contend.
Credit-card companies routinely offer cards that have been loaded with tricks and traps that consumers don't know about or understand, causing millions of Americans to become hopelessly mired in debt, Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren told the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee during an oversight hearing Thursday on the industry.
Those tricks and traps, Warren said, include hiking interest rates when a cardholder falls behind in payments to other creditors, charging fees for payment by telephone and a practice called double-cycle billing. That's when a cardholder, for example, pays $90 of a $100 charge but then next month the consumer is charged interest on the entire amount rather than just the $10 balance.
It takes a lawyer to figure out the terms and conditions of most credit-card contracts, Warren and other consumer advocates complained. Increasingly, credit-card companies are targeting college students, military personnel, senior citizents and the disabled with pre-approved offers, the critics said.
"No one has to be an engineer to buy a toaster in America; no one has to be a crash-test expert to buy a car," said Warren, an author of consumer books. "Cheap shortcuts that boost (credit-card company) profits but leave consumers at risk should be banned."
Americans' use of credit cards has exploded in the past 20 years. In 1980, consumers used 100 million credit cards to purchase $69 billion in goods and services. Last year, they used 700 million cards to buy $1.8 trillion in goods and services. About 40 percent of credit-card holders pay off their debt every month.
The average credit-card debt for households that carry a balance is $13,000, Robert Manning, professor of consumer finance at Rochester Institute of Technology, told the committee.
At least two senators, Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, and Carl Levin, D-Mich., have said they will introduce legislation to rein in credit-card companies.
But Richard Vague, chief executive of Barclays Bank Delaware, said that Federal Reserve Board studies consistently show that 90 percent of consumers are happy with their credit-card issuers.
This story ran on The Courier Journal on January 27, 2007.