Can My Credit Card Company Do That to Me?

September 10, 2009, Written By Bill Hardekopf

One of the most common complaints among credit cardholders is that changes have suddenly been made in the rates, fees or credit limits of an account. The customer usually reacts with the question, “Can they do that?” Despite the difficult personal hardships or the devastating effects these changes can cause on a household, the answer is almost always, “Yes, they can.”

The ability for an issuer to make changes in your credit card account starts with the terms and conditions, the complicated fine print that is included in credit card offers that explains the rights of the issuer. Issuers can make changes to these terms at any time as long as they notify cardholders, usually with a mailed notice or an insert in the monthly bill. However, it is often easy for cardholders to miss important terms in the application or overlook the notifications, making it easy for customers to be caught by surprise by changes to their account.

Although the terms and conditions of credit cards are tedious to read, experts advise studying the fine print to learn about imposed fees for certain actions so as not to be caught by surprise.

Here are some “Can they do that” questions and the answers:

* Can they change my fixed rate to a variable rate?
Yes. The issuer can switch the rate from a fixed rate to a variable rate even if the original offer said the rate was fixed for the life of the balance.

The original agreement could be conditional. The Credit CARD Act requires that interest rates on new accounts must remain fixed for a year unless the cardholder does not pay the bill. Experts say that to avoid being locked into that fixed rate, issuers switch the cards from fixed to variable rates to give them the ability to raise rates even after the regulations go into effect.

* Can they change my rewards program?
Yes. Some issuers are changing the rewards structure for some cards to cut costs. American Express reduced the amount of cash you can earn from 1.5% to 1.25% on most purchases. Chase created Ultimate Rewards with a less generous rewards program to replace its popular Chase Freedom card. Capital One has notified some cardholders of a new points program that starts in November which has slightly lower rewards on a number of tiers.

* Can they close my account?
Yes. Issuers are closing accounts as a way to reduce their own lending risk. Unlike rate increases, issuers do not have to notify you before they close your account. Some issuers state in their terms and conditions that they will not be responsible for the consequences from closing your account.

Some issuers are closing accounts due to inactivity. Experts advise that even if you aren’t using them, credit lines are very important and can be good for your credit score. It is suggested to show account activity by using your card once a month on a small purchase and then paying off the balance completely at the end of each month.

* Can they increase my minimum payment?
Yes. Chase recently increased the minimum payment from 2% to 5% for many of its cardholders. In the long run, this is good for cardholders because the more they pay toward their balance, the faster they pay off the card and the less they pay in interest. However, this is bad timing and a financial blow for many households who are struggling to pay the bills right now. Troubled cardholders can contact their issuer to work out a payment plan if the increased minimum fee proves to be problematic.

* Can they cut my credit limit?
Yes. A recent FICO study says that credit card issuers cut limits for an estimated 58 million cardholders for the twelve months ended in April 2009. Issuers can also increase or cancel your credit line, or the balance transfer or cash advance portion of your credit line.

* Can they increase fees any higher?
Yes. Issuers will probably continue finding ways to increase rates and fees. In June, Bank of America recently increased the balance transfer fee from 3% to 4%. Chase followed in August with an increase in the balance transfer fee to 5%.

* Can they increase my rate because I defaulted on another credit card with another issuer?
No. This is Universal Default and it is banned under the Credit CARD Act. Issuers must only focus on your payment record with their particular card.

* Can they force me to accept a higher interest rate?
Not any more. The CARD Act now requires issuers to give a 45-day notice before a rate increase. This gives cardholders time to opt out, and close the account at the current rate. Keep in mind that this forfeits rewards and points so use those before you close the account.

* Can they force me to keep paying the higher rate as long as possible?
Yes, but only for a few more months. Currently, many issuers apply payments to the part of your balance with the lowest interest rates, forcing you to pay the highest rate as long as possible. After the CARD Act goes into effect, they will apply the payment toward that part of the balance with the highest rates.

* Can I do anything about significant changes to my account, especially the interest rate increases or decreases to my credit limit? Unfortunately, unless you have a great credit score, there is not a lot you can do. Several years ago, competition for cardholders was so active that a cardholder had to simply mention a competing offer to negotiate a lower rate. Today, issuers are much more selective and focused on minimizing their own risk. Only the cardholders with excellent credit scores still have power to get a better deal by threatening to switch to another credit card. Today, if your credit is not excellent, you may be stuck with the changes made to your account. Other issuers are no longer lining up with lower rates and generous terms for balance transfers just to get their card into your wallet or purse.

 

The Obama Administration has proposed a Consumer Financial Protection Agency that will help address complaints of consumers and also enforce rules and laws for consumer protection. The credit card issuers are currently lobbying against this.


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The information contained within this article was accurate as of September 10, 2009. For up-to-date
information on any of the terms, cards or offers mentioned above, visit the issuer's website.


About Bill Hardekopf

Bill Hardekopf is the CEO of LowCards.com and covers the credit card industry from all perspectives. Bill has been involved with personal finance for over 15 years. He is a frequent contributor to Forbes, The Street and The Christian Science Monitor.
View all posts by Bill Hardekopf