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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Credit Card Reform Comes Back

The call to reform the most abusive and restrictive practices of the credit card industry was once again heard on Capitol Hill yesterday, as two separate hearings emphasized both the need for more oversight and new legislation to protect consumers.

The Senate Judiciary Committee convened a hearing over S. 2359, aka the "Consumer Credit Fairness Act," introduced by Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Dick Durbin (D-IL). The bill would, if made law, amend a portion of the 2005 bankruptcy legislation to enable consumers to divest a portion of their debt in bankruptcy.

Under the terms of the Act, if a filer's consumer debt threshold — including credit card debt, payday loans, or other debts — exceeded 15 percent plus current rates on 30-year Treasury bonds, they could have it liquidated in bankruptcy. The Act would also exempt filers with debt levels above the threshold from the "means test" mandated by the new bankruptcy law.

"The standard credit card agreement gives the lender the power to bleed their customers through evolving and ever more crafty tricks and traps," Whitehouse said in his opening statement. "The typical credit card agreement, which twenty years ago was a page in length, has grown to a 20-page, small print contract filled with legalese. In substance, it gives the companies the right to raise interest rates for almost any reason, and in some cases no reason at all."

The committee heard testimony from Douglas Corey, a Bank of America customer who had been paying his card debt on time for years, until he accidentally paid less than his normal minimum payment in August 2008. That triggered a spiral of rate increases and penalty fees that threatened to bury Corey under even more debt.

"With my next statement in October 2008 came the devastating news that my interest rate had skyrocketed to an astonishing 28.99 percent," Corey said. "I went from paying $360 in interest to $792 in one month and I was charged a $39 late payment fee. The following month, I was laid off from my sales representative position of seven years."

Corey's debt troubles increased to the point where he was missing payments on his mortgage, but, he said, he struggled to keep current on his loans. "Bank of America has come before you asking for help, understanding, and, with both hands open, for financial support," he said. "Yet when we the consumers go to these institutions looking for the same help, understanding and financial support, we get roughed up and receive no compassion."

Whitehouse introduced the Act in the previous session of Congress, but no action was taken on it. The House of Representatives passed the "Credit Cardholder's Bill of Rights" last year, but that bill did not come to the Senate for consideration. The House Financial Services Committee is expected to act on credit card legislation next week.

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