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Card costs: Are you getting slammed?
Survey looks at how fees, rates and rewards have changed since 2004.
July 28, 2005: 5:47 PM EDT
By Jeanne Sahadi, CNN/Money senior writer
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NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - It's easy to curse the credit card industry for milking consumers through rising fees and rates.

Findings from a survey released Thursday certainly won't reduce the number of obscenity-spewing credit card users.

Penalty and universal default rates are higher than ever. So if you carry a balance, any late payments -- to say nothing of ones missed altogether -- will cost you a pretty penny, especially on top of the penalty fees imposed.

On the bright side, fewer issuers are imposing penalty rates and fewer cards carry annual fees.

In its 2005 credit card survey, the San Francisco-based nonprofit advocacy group Consumer Action examined the pricing policies of 146 cards from 47 issuers.

Here are some of the group's key findings:

Penalty rates

The good news is that 79 percent of issuers impose a penalty rate when cardholders are late with their payments. That's down from 85 percent last year.

But the bad news is that those that impose penalty rates -- 43 percent -- do so after one late payment. Other triggers include going over your credit limit or bouncing a payment check.

The average penalty rate has gone up to 24.23 percent, from 21.91 percent in 2004. But Consumer Action attributes that to the fact the rates are typically tied to the prime rate, which has risen two percentage points since last year's survey.

Universal default rates

You have a perfect record with a credit card company, but your rate gets jacked up because something happened in another area of your financial life. Welcome to the world of universal default rates.

The survey found that 45 percent of card issuers impose a universal default rate, a slight increase over last year. The rates ranged as high as 35 percent (at Merrick Bank). Those with the second highest rate of 29.99 percent: Citibank, Bank of America and Providian.

Among issuers with default-rate policies, here's the percentage that cited the following as triggers:

  • Credit score falls: 90%
  • Late payment on a loan or other obligation: 57%
  • Bouncing a payment check on another account: 52%
  • Too much debt: 43%
  • Too much available credit: 33%
  • Getting a new credit card: 33%
  • Inquiring about a car loan or mortgage: 24%

More than half said that after six months of improved credit, they may reduce a customer's rate, but not necessarily to its original level.

Penalty fees

In addition to being subject to a penalty rate in a number of circumstances, you also may be hit with a fee.

Late fees: The survey found 95 percent of cards carry them. But the not-so-bad news is that the average late fee -- $27.46 is only a penny different than last year.

Over-the-limit fees: Again, 95 percent of cards surveyed have them and the average is $30.18, with a high of $39.

Bounced check fees: If your payment check bounces, 89 percent of banks surveyed will charge you an average fee of $28.61, with a high of $38.

Annual fees and reward cards

The majority of cards (68 percent) don't charge annual fees. Of those that do, the average is $43.27, up 16 percent from $37.33 last year.

When it comes to rewards e.g., airline miles, cash back, points for merchandise or gasoline -- the number of cards offering them has increased to 36 percent from 23 percent last year.

That jump may reflect the fact that rewards cards can be good business. "Industry research shows that reward cardholders make more purchases, tend to use their rewards cards exclusively and are less likely to jump-ship for lower rate cards," said Linda Sherry, who coordinated the survey, in her report.

If you'd like to see more findings from the survey, you can get them at Consumer Action's Web site.


Minimum payments are also on the rise. See why here.  Top of page


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