Monday, May 22, 2006

Tricks of the Trade

Credit card contract formation methods should be illegal. You are asked to sign the agreement before you see it, by signing the application. What are they hiding?

Here are some especially problematic terms that can be in your contract: Two-cycle billing. This uses two months of balances to come up with the average daily balance. It can be a big problem for borrowers who only rarely keep balances from one month to the next, because they'll end up paying two months interest for one month's debt. Universal default. This means your card company could raise your rates if you're late on somebody else's bill somewhere else.

If your credit history profile changes at all, they can view that as a signal to raise your rates. Over-limit fees. If you have a $5,000 credit limit and you use your card to buy something that costs $5,010, don't expect the charge to be denied. Instead expect your issuer to charge you a fee of $30 or more. Maybe you think that's worth it for the convenience.

Due times, not just dates. Many, if not most, issuers now consider a bill late if it arrives on the due date after a certain time of day -- typically before the mail is delivered. Then you can get busted for being late, a situation that can jack up your rate to levels over 20 percent and add another $30 or more in fees.

-- Crunch your own statements. Issuers say they could end up spending as much as $57 million to provide customers with customized minimum payment and balance disclosures, but most customers say that's what they want, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

Individualized disclosures like that would let you know how long you'd have to make those minimum payments before you'd bust your balance to zero, and how much you'd pay in interest in the meantime. Don't hold your breath waiting for those statements. Go to an online calculator such as the bankrate Web site to get your own answer.

Go to the Reuters website for the full story.

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