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Issuers help credit cardholders in wildfire areas

Card companies offer relief for Californians displaced by fires

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Disaster strikes and you and your family have to evacuate -- quickly. You may have cash on hand at the house and you may not. You may have time to stop by an ATM and you may not.

Firefighter consoles a wildfire victim.

When disaster strikes...

Many California residents had to evacuate from their homes at a moment's notice, leaving valuables and important paperwork behind.

 

Credit card issuers are offering help to affected cardholders.

Fires cause panic and devastation.

As thousands of people fleeing wildfires in California know firsthand, relocating at a moment's notice can cause significant disruption for families. Many are facing emergency expenses for hotel lodging, rental cars and other items. Some of the California evacuees may be struggling with the same dilemma: What if the credit cards have burned in the fires? What if you don't have your account number? Or recent statements? Or what if your cards are maxed out and you can't charge any more on them?

Several of the major banks and credit unions that issue credit cards say they have set up provisions to help displaced credit cardholders. Relief may include temporarily increasing lines of credit, waiving late fees and finance charges and working out more lenient payment plans while families are unsettled.

Thousands of cardholders affected
"Obviously, there are thousands of card members who are affected," says Desiree Fish, vice president of public affairs and communications for American Express. The company's Global Assist hotline, which normally aids distressed travelers in foreign countries, is set up to help 24 hours a day during natural disasters at home. The firm also posted information on its website for card members and merchants affected by the fires.

In addition, Fish says, customer service representatives have been calling select California customers and offering help. " 'Do you need emergency cash? Do you need help with lodging?' We're trying to look at the different situations and make sure that American Express is there for them. Where are they? Is their house burned down? Are they going to be homeless for a few months?"

Minimum payments shelved
JP Morgan Chase has removed minimum monthly payment requirements for California cardholders affected by the fires. They will also increase

Call for help
Here is a list of toll-free numbers to the top five major credit card issuers in the U.S.
American Express (800) 333-2639
Bank of America (866) 500-5279
Chase (800) 432-3117
Citi Cards (800) 950-5114
Wells Fargo (800) 869-3557
Note: Most credit cards list a toll-free customer service number on the back of the card that may provide more direct connection to the credit card services division.
maximum credit limits by $500 for emergencies, remove late fees and finance charges and rush orders for replacement credit cards.

"We want to do our best to help make this very difficult time a bit easier on our customers," says Chase spokeswoman Jessica Hougentogler. "We know this is a very tough time for our California card members affected by the wildfires."

Bank of America, Wells Fargo and Discover are also offering special assistance to California credit cardholders. Bank of America set up a mobile ATM unit at one of the emergency assistance centers. ATM fees were waived for noncustomers at more than 200 ATMs in San Diego County.

Debt collections suspended
Citi is handling customer requests for emergency relief case by case. "Because the scale of this emergency disaster and its diverse impacts on so many people, we believe it is important to respond quickly to our customers' individual situations," says Samuel Wang, vice president of public affairs for Citi. The banking giant is encouraging its customers to contact them if they are experiencing problems or have concerns about their credit cards or credit availability.

Wang adds that Citi will also temporarily suspend calls for collections and delinquent payments in the seven-county area designated for federal disaster aid. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), these counties are: San Bernardino, Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara, Orange, San Diego and Riverside.

The National Credit Union Administration (NCUA), which oversees credit unions that issue credit cards, has activated its disaster relief plan to assist credit unions. This includes encouraging the institutions to make emergency loans to members and reducing the normal amount of documentation and paperwork required to obtain them.

Don't wait to call
Consumer credit advisers say families facing crises should not wait to call for emergency relief from their credit card issuers.

"Call the credit card company now and explain where you live and that for the next 20 days you need an additional line of credit," advises Catherine Williams, national spokeswoman for the Houston-based Consumer Credit Counseling Service, a nonprofit organization that helps consumers manage credit, debt and personal finances.

Safety and welfare of loved ones should be the first priority for families facing the devastation of losing their homes. "Deal with the payments later. Heck, you may not even have a mailbox to get the mail," Williams says.

Use cards, covet cash
Another tip: conserve your cash. Many families who fled at a moment's notice may have had little cash on hand. Many ATM machines be difficult to reach, empty or inoperable. She advises evacuees to use a credit card -- instead of cash -- when possible to pay for emergency expenses. This will document costs you incur, such as rental cars, hotels and supplies. These expenses may be reimbursed by insurance companies or other assistance programs later.

Williams suggests dividing up the family credit cards and checks "so no one person has all of them." If you are separated from family members for any reason, no one will be completely stranded.

See also: Pre-disaster financial checklist, FAQ about post-disaster credit card use.

To comment on this story, write to editors@creditcards.com

Published: October 26, 2007


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