A wakeup letter to Washington

Note to lawmakers: It's high time to take care of unfair costs for consumers. Let's have some change for fair play.

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By Marlys Harris, Money Magazine editor-at-large

Just how loudly does money talk?
"Regulation" isn't such a dirty word in Washington anymore. But K Street - that's D.C. shorthand for the corporate lobbyists - still has plenty of muscle. Members of the key congressional committees take in lots of donations from the financial sector.
House Financial Services Committee
Total donations from financial and real estate industries
$21,776,767

Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee
Total donations from financial and real estate industries
$33,649,154
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(Money Magazine) -- Take a memo.

To: Our new Congress; the President-elect

From: Nickeled-and-dimed Americans

Re: The (other) financial mess

Congratulations on winning your elections. We trust you won't spend too much time celebrating, though. We taxpayers have had to lay nearly $1 trillion on the line to keep the banking and credit system from collapsing. Cross our fingers, it just might work.

Your task now is to reform the financial industry that helped get us into this jam in the first place. Already there's a fervor in Washington to clamp down on the wholesale side of Wall Street's business, to tighten capital requirements and to get on top of derivatives and the other kooky securities investment banks trade.

All good. But please don't ignore the retail end - that is, the way lenders and brokers do business every day with us consumers. That's a mess too. You've allowed these companies, including some of the very ones we're bailing out now, to do pretty much whatever they want to drain us of our money.

Even the most responsible and savvy borrowers among us have trouble avoiding the tricky fees and rate-hike triggers on our credit cards. You've allowed our kids to get sucked into the debt culture before they've even gotten a job to pay the bills.

And then there are the financial products that are just plain poison, like mortgages that homeowners can't possibly repay and loans with interest rates to rival what guys with names like Sammy Knuckles used to charge.

As we're seeing now, irresponsible lending doesn't just hurt the people who take the bait. It can undermine the whole economy.

We aren't saying that lenders shouldn't make a profit. And we aren't saying that we borrowers aren't responsible for our own choices. We just want transparency and safeguards against faulty financial products.

Here's what you should be working on:

Curb credit-card gotchas

We understand the basic bargain behind credit cards (or think we do). For the convenience of charging, we have to pay some interest. If we pay on time, we should get a lower rate because we've proven that there's little risk we won't pay back.

But if we miss payments, we'll pay more - and even get dinged with some penalties. The card issuers call this risk-based pricing. And whenever lawmakers discuss new regulations, issuers strenuously argue that this system must never be undermined, for the good of consumers.

Ken Clayton of the American Bankers Association says that if lenders aren't allowed to charge their riskier customers a penalty, "some people will lose access to credit at reasonable prices."

Well, sure. Of course lenders ought to be able to set rules for borrowers - the only trouble here is the complexity. It seems to us that card companies aren't pricing for risk so much as teasing us with one low rate and then building multiple traps into their contracts to get us to shell out more, no matter how creditworthy we are. After all, virtually anyone can occasionally incur a late fee.

For starters, there are contracts that stipulate that the terms of the loan can change "at any time, for any reason" - which makes us wonder what all the rest of the gobbledygook is there for.

Among the reasons a card lender might choose to hike our rates: We missed a payment owed to someone else. (The lenders' jargon for this is universal default.) And when we're hit with a new rate, it's generally applied not only to new purchases but to any outstanding balances.

Penalty fees have become an important part of the card lenders' business model. According to IndexCreditCards.com, the average late fee is up to $35; the fee for going over the credit limit is about the same. (And those charges accrue interest too.)

Bills are often mailed out uncomfortably close to the due date. Sometimes the deadline isn't just a date but a specific hour. You can even be charged when paying on time: A Washington Mutual card assesses a $15 fee for paying online on the due date.

And then there's the stuff that seems intentionally perplexing. Many cards, for example, offer tantalizing 0% rates on balance transfers while charging a higher rate on regular purchases.

If a customer doesn't pay off the balance transfer immediately, all the monthly payments go to that 0% loan while the balance for the other, higher-rate charges just compounds and compounds.

Another common trick is "double cycle" billing. Here's how it works: Say a cardholder with no previous balance charges $1,200 and pays off $500 when the bill is due. You might think that interest would be assessed only on the remaining $700.

And with some cards that's true. But with double-cycle cards, a customer would owe interest in the next billing period on $1,900 - first on the original $1,200 and then on the $700 left over.

It's tough enough for full-fledged grownups with steady incomes to navigate this credit-card maze. So it worries us when we see that credit-card companies are aggressively pulling in college students. If they're over 18, they don't need a parent's consent to sign up.

A 2008 survey of new college grads for the credit bureau TransUnion found that 24% start their adult lives with more than $5,000 in credit-card debt. Many students have no means of support other than their parents, scholarships or loans.

But if kids don't or can't repay, says Robert Manning, author of Credit Card Nation, lenders "send bill collectors after parents saying, 'Do you really want to ruin Sally's life over $6,000?'"

How to fix it: We're hopeful that change is coming. "A critical mass is building for reform," says Travis Plunkett, legislative director of the Consumer Federation of America (CFA). Last year the Federal Reserve, which regulates banks, proposed new rules and asked for public comments. An unprecedented 62,000 consumers wrote in.

The Fed's proposal is a good start. If chairman Ben Bernanke actually approves the new rules, they'll ban double-cycle billing, prohibit applying rate increases to old balances and force companies to consider a payment on time if received by 5 p.m. of the due date.

The Fed would also require card companies to apply payments above the minimum proportionally. So if a cardholder who owes $2,000 for new purchases at 19% and $3,000 for transfers at 0% made a payment of $500 over the minimum, the bank would have to apply $200 to the new purchases and $300 to the cash advance. How perfectly sensible.

If the Fed doesn't act or waters down its ideas, then Congress, it's up to you. The Credit Cardholders' Bill of Rights, sponsored by Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., passed the House in September.

It would do much of what the Fed proposed and then some. It would bar universal default and "any time, any reason" rate hikes and require card companies to send out bills 25 days in advance of the due date.

The measure would also cut down on surprises. Card companies would have to notify customers of any rate increase 45 days before it went into effect. That would give us more time to make other plans or shop around for a better rate.

In an ideal world, we'd like Congress to go further. If a card has a credit limit, the lender should enforce it, instead of letting the transaction go through and then spanking us with a big fine.

And lawmakers should forget about those complicated deadlines and require lenders to accept a payment if it's postmarked on the due date. If that's good enough for the IRS, it should be good enough for a card company.

But most important, we've really got to protect students. Manning proposes a common-sense solution: Those between ages 18 and 21 should be allowed to have credit, but only if they have some income. Student loans and bailouts from the Bank of Mom and Dad shouldn't count.

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