Credit card fees head higher
Government Accountability Office finds increase in penalties charged and explores link to bankruptcy filings.
By Jeanne Sahadi, senior writer

NEW YORK ( -- Late fees and penalty interest rates continue to charge higher, according to a recent report from the Government Accountability Office.

The average late fee in 2005, for example, was $34, up 162 percent from $13 in 1995, the GAO found. Over-the-limit fees were $31, up 138 percent from $13 during the same period.

Last year, penalty interest rates hovered around 30 percent at the leading card issuers, with one bank charging 35 percent, according to Consumer Action's annual credit card study. Those rates can be triggered by late payments, charging too high a percentage of one's credit limit or exceeding it.

Penalty rates this year are almost certainly higher, since regular variable rates charged to consumers have gone up four percentage points, said Linda Sherry, Consumer Action's director of national priorities.

For consumers who can't afford to pay off their credit cards balances in full, high penalty interest rates and fees can leave them with an increasing balance despite their making regular payments.

But to what extent those penalty charges contribute to a consumer's need to file for bankruptcy isn't clear.

The GAO report cites research that both supports and refutes the claim that credit card penalties can help push a financially distressed consumer into bankruptcy.

On the one hand, bankruptcies have risen steeply in the past 25 years, as have the use of credit cards, the amount of credit card debt, and the variety and amount of rates and fees charged.

On the other hand, the percentage of households with debt payments exceeding 40 percent of their income hasn't changed significantly in the past 15 years, nor has the percentage of low-income households with credit card debt.

And overall, the average interest rate credit card customers pay today is lower than it was before 1990, when the standard was to charge a fixed rate of 20 percent with no penalties. Today, credit card rates typically run from 8 percent to 19 percent, with over 40 percent of them below 15 percent, the GAO found.

However, in specific bankruptcy and collection cases the GAO reviewed, credit card penalty charges constituted a large percentage of a debtor's total balance.

In one case, for example, a debtor's balance rose from $4,888 to $5,499 over two years, despite the fact that the debtor paid $3,058 and charged only $236 in purchases during the time period. The entire $3,058 went towards paying finance charges, late charges, over-limit fees, bad check fees and phone payment fees.

Credit card issuers told the GAO it's not in their interest for consumers to declare bankruptcy since a big portion of their charge-offs -- debt that doesn't get repaid to the issuer -- comes from cardholders who have filed for bankruptcy.

The GAO recommends that credit card companies greatly improve the organization, clarity and visibility of its disclosures about all rates and fees, since it found most consumers did not understand their card member agreements.

The GAO report was released on the eve of the first year anniversary of the bankruptcy reform law, for which the credit card industry had lobbied. (Despite the industry's efforts, early reports indicate credit card providers may be getting less from bankruptcy settlements than they did under the old law.)


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