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Friday focus: Personal finance

Fri., Feb. 13, 2009

Swiping your credit card would come with dramatic new protections under regulations considered by congressional lawmakers Thursday.

Among the industry practices blasted at the Senate Banking Committee’s hearing was the piling-on of hidden fees on consumers. Fees can be incurred for telephone payments, balance transfers, replacing lost cards and cash advances. Card issuers can also hike interest rates for a variety of reasons.

Any new regulations would be in addition to a sweeping clampdown on the industry already adopted by the Federal Reserve late last year. Those rules, which take effect in July 2010, shield consumers from arbitrary interest rate hikes and inadequate time to pay bills.

In addition, consumers will have to be given 45 days notice before any changes are made to the terms of an account. Under current rules, companies in most cases give 15 days notice before making certain changes.

A payment could also not be deemed late unless the borrower is given a reasonable period of time, such as 21 days, to pay.

Legislation introduced Wednesday would also:

•Prohibit credit card companies from charging interest on penalty fees

•Prohibit charging consumers to pay bills via mail or telephone

•Require card issuers to lower penalty interest rates if no further violations occur after six months

•Require issuers soliciting anyone under 21 to get the signature of the parent or guardian who will co-sign for debt

Scrutiny of the industry comes at a time when consumers are defaulting at high levels on credit card bills.

Last month, Fitch Ratings said its index of charge-offs on prime credit card portfolios rose in December to its highest level in four years. The rate at which cardholders repaid outstanding balances, meanwhile, slowed to its lowest since mid-2004.

Charge-offs are loans written off as not being repaid.

Associated Press

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