U.S. consumer watchdog says 2009 law reduced credit card fees

WASHINGTON Wed Oct 2, 2013 12:08am EDT

American Express and MasterCard credit cards are shown in Washington June 25, 2008. REUTERS/Jim Bourg

American Express and MasterCard credit cards are shown in Washington June 25, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Jim Bourg

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The total cost of credit card fees and interest payments to U.S. consumers fell and charges for going over allowable credit limits effectively disappeared after a 2009 law cracked down on the market, according to a report released on Wednesday.

The U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's first report on the so-called CARD Act said costs are easier to understand and consumers are better protected from credit cards they cannot afford than they were before Congress passed the law.

But regulators said they still are looking into whether credit card companies treat consumers fairly when they market extras such as identity theft protection and credit monitoring.

Congress passed the 2009 law in hopes of making the credit card market more transparent for borrowers. It called for issuers to check whether consumers could pay for credit cards, and restricts certain fees and changes to interest rates.

"The bottom line at the time was that consumers had no good way to assess the true cost of their credit card upfront," Richard Cordray, the consumer bureau's director, said in prepared remarks for a speech on Wednesday.

"The act eliminated many unfair fees, made some market practices more transparent, paved the way for easier comparison shopping, and created a market where consumers can see the costs upfront," Cordray said.

The bureau was created by the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street oversight law and given authority over credit cards, mortgages and other consumer financial products.

In 2011, when it formally opened, the bureau took on responsibility for implementing the CARD Act. The report released on Wednesday was required by the law.

One key concern of lawmakers since the 2007-2009 crisis has been that the meltdown and resulting efforts to crack down on Wall Street may have restricted borrowers' access to credit.

The consumer bureau's report said responsible access to credit cards remains available, although consumers now must ask for their credit limits to be raised rather than having card companies boost them automatically.

Annual fees and interest rates for credit cards have gone up, the bureau found, but the total cost of credit has declined. That is because penalties for late payments and other unexpected fees have gone down, the report said.

Fees for going over allowable credit limits have basically been eliminated, the bureau said. The CARD Act says card issuers can no longer allow consumers to exceed their limits unless the cardholders first agree to pay fees when they go over.

The consumer watchdog said it planned to study some credit market issues that were not addressed by the 2009 law, including so-called "add-on" products, or optional extras that are often marketed to cardholders.

Such products already have been a focus of enforcement actions against card companies, including Discover Financial Services and Capital One Financial.

Regulators also want to look into whether credit card companies make clear disclosures to borrowers who pay their bills online rather than receive a monthly statement.

(Reporting by Emily Stephenson; Editing by David Gregorio)

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