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RISMEDIA, February 23, 2011—(MCT)—Before the Credit CARD Act—designed to protect borrowers from unfair credit card practices—banks could charge high fees to cardholders who went over their limit, apply payments in a way that maximized their profits and raise interest rates whenever they pleased—even on old balances. These practices were outlawed in 2009, along with a host of others that cost consumers big money. Many of the new rules went into effect last February. One year later, are credit card users better off? Yes, say most consumer advocates. Here’s a list of the major changes, and what they’ve meant for credit card users.

Interest rates: Thanks to the act, banks can no longer raise interest rates on already-borrowed money in most instances, a major victory for consumers, said Linda Sherry, a credit card expert from Consumer Action. Banks must also give consumers 45 days notice before implementing major changes to card terms.

But have interest rates risen? That’s the consensus. But a Center for Responsible Lending study released recently found rates held steady since the act. The study examined a handful of credit card data sets, including two from the Federal Reserve—and found that the differences between the “stated rate,” or the interest rate on credit card solicitations, and the actual rate that consumers pay on their debt, has narrowed. This means consumers paid closer to what they thought they would pay when they signed up for the card.

“An estimated $12.1 billion in previously obscure yearly charges are now more clearly stated in credit card offers,” wrote Josh Frank, the study’s author. The thing is, many creditors led preemptive strikes and raised rates in 2009, after the act passed but before it became law. And the gap between the interest rate and the prime rate, which banks typically use as a base rate, is very wide. So why haven’t rates come down? In light of the new act, “Card companies are interested in covering themselves,” Sherry said.

Access to credit: Many banks adjusted to the tougher financial times and the new law by cutting card limits, closing accounts and offering credit only to less-risky customers. In a shareholder letter last spring, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon said the mega-bank stopped offering cards to 15% of the customers who were once offered credit “because we deem them too risky in light of new regulations.”

Credit card offers are starting to fill mailboxes again, according to research firm Synovate, which tracks card mailings. Yet they’re still below the numbers sent before the Great Recession and CARD Act, and very few are going to households with FICO credit scores below 620.

Clearer terms: No more guessing how much your card balance will cost you over time. Now banks must show how much that cup of coffee will cost you if you only make the minimum payment. The frightening number, displayed on your statement, has prompted one in four respondents of a Consumer Reports poll to pay more than the minimum due.

Fees: The CARD Act caps some penalty fees. For example, the first late fee is capped at $25, far less than the $39 fees once levied by some credit card issuers.

The new law also requires banks to get permission from customers before approving over-the-limit transactions.

Much was written about how these restrictions would cost the banks billions in lost fee revenue, forcing them to create new fees to make up lost profits. But Anuj Shahani, a director at Synovate, said that hasn’t really come to pass. “I think high competition among the issuers has restricted the cost add-ons to be passed to the consumer entirely,” he said. Annual fees haven’t become the norm either.

But fees don’t have to be added to credit cards for consumer to feel the pinch, as John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education for SmartCredit.com, points out. “Look at what’s happening to free checking. It’s not a credit card fee per se, but it’s vanishing, in part, because of the financial burden of the act.”

(c) 2011, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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