Credit card rates at record highs near 15%

chart_interest_rates.top.gif By Blake Ellis, staff reporter


NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- Interest rates are now hovering near record highs, at an average rate of 14.72%. And if your credit is bad enough, you could even end up with a rate as high as 59.9% APR.

That's because while the CARD Act helped crack down on certain fees and requires more disclosures, it didn't cap every credit card holder's worst enemy: interest rates.

Sure, the new rules prevent banks from raising most interest rates retroactively, but there's no limit on the rates they can charge new customers.

"Rates are going up because card issuers know that once you get a card they can't raise the rates, so they're raising rates on the front end to ensure they get the revenue from that interest," said Beverly Harzog, credit card expert at Credit.com.

APRs have climbed more than 20% over the past two years and hit an all-time high of an average 14.78% in mid-November, based on weekly data CreditCards.com collects from 100 of the nation's top credit card issuers.

And there's no end in sight. While interest rate caps have been proposed -- including a proposal earlier this month from New York Congressman Maurice Hinchey that would limit rates at 15% -- none have been passed into law so far.

So what do record high interest rates mean for you? If you have a terrible credit score, opening a credit card is going to be painful. Though rates vary depending on the card you apply for, with a score below 599 you'll likely be stuck facing an APR of 24% or higher, said Harzog. If you can get a card at all.

In fact, First Premier Bank offers a Gold MasterCard with a whopping 59.9% rate for those people with "less than perfect credit", according to its website. And that rate is actually down from the 79.9% rate it originally charged.

Even with a credit score between 600 to 649 -- still considered poor, but not terrible -- you're probably looking at rates around 20%.

Harzog recommends staying away from interest rates above 20% and instead getting a secured card from a lender like Orchard Bank as a way to build up credit so that you can eventually get a card with a decent rate.

With a secured card, you deposit money into an account and can use the card like a credit card -- and it impacts your credit just like a credit card does. But if you don't make payments, the bank will just take your own money out of the account.

"I don't suggest people ever carry a balance at such high interest rates," Harzog said. "A secured card is like a credit card on training wheels, so it will help you get your credit back on track."

With a credit score between 650 and 699, you're on your way to finding better interest rates, likely ranging between 15% and 19%.

Capital One's Classic Platinum is a good option for people with fair credit. Its rate starts at 17.9%, with a 0% introductory APR until October.

But because 17.9% is still a pretty high rate, Harzog suggests using the introductory rate as a cushion to get your balances paid off. That way, once you hit 17.9%, you're not financing anything and you can simply use the card as a way to build your credit and look for a better rate.

If you have what is typically considered a good score -- between 700 and 749 -- you should be able to get rates between 13% and 15% depending where you fall in that range. Meanwhile, an excellent score -- 750 and up -- will qualify you for the lowest rates out there.

The Chase Sapphire card offers an ongoing APR of 13.24% for excellent or good credit, while the Citi Platinum Select MasterCard comes with a starting rate of 11.99% and a 0% APR on purchases for the first 12 months.

If your credit is squeaky clean, check out the 7.25% Simmons Visa Platinum card from Simmons First Bank, which is located in Arkansas but serves customers nationwide. Pentagon Federal Credit Union's PenFed Promise Visa card is another good option, with an ongoing rate of 9.99% and only 7.49% for the first three years.

"If you have excellent credit, you have some really great choices," Harzog said. "But once you get down to the bad levels you're going to have to go with those really high levels of 24.95%." To top of page

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