Consumer Q and A: Credit card law, phase 1, debuts
What consumers should know about new changes taking effect
The most sweeping changes in credit card practices in decades are set to begin on Thursday.
It's a new era as credit card companies revamp their practices to comply with the Credit CARD Act of 2009, whose first provisions took effect Aug. 20.
In the weeks and months leading up to the new law, credit card companies have hiked interest rates, closed accounts, increased minimum payments and fees, reinstituted annual fees and slashed credit limits -- partly because of the souring economy and rising loan defaults and in anticipation of tough new credit card billing restrictions.
Here are some questions consumers might have about the first phase of the new credit card law.
Q. When can consumers begin to use their opt-out rights for credit card changes?
A. Any notices of changes in terms received on or after Aug. 20, 2009, must contain information about consumers' new right to opt out of (or right to cancel) increases in interest rates, fees, finance charges and certain other changes in credit card agreements. This notice must be mailed or delivered to cardholders at least 45 days before the change takes effect. It must disclose the deadline for responding if consumers choose to opt out of changes, a toll-free telephone number to call or information about where to write to opt out and the date that the new changes will take effect if they do not opt out.
Opting out means the consumer can no longer make purchases with the card. Instead, the old, lower interest ratewill be applied while the cardholder repays the balance. There are three methods for repaying balances on accounts that have been closed by consumers choosing to reject changes. Issuers can either:
- Collect the balance over at least five years.
- Charge a minimum payment amount that is up to twice the percentage charged before the change in terms.
- Use the same repayment plan used on the account at the time the consumer rejects the change in terms.
Credit card issuers cannot demand payment in full if consumers choose to opt out of changes to their accounts.
NOTE: If cardholders receive notices of changes in terms BEFORE Aug. 20, they do not have the right to opt out, regardless of when the changes take effect.
Q. Do consumers have the right to opt out of all changes in terms?
A. No. The Federal Reserve has ruled that consumers cannot opt out of increases in , reductions in or interest rate hikes triggered when cardholders are more than 60 days late paying monthly bills. In addition, interest rates increased by virtue of increases in the on variable rate credit cards also are not eligible for opt out.
Q. Can consumers call their credit card companies to opt out of changes or should they write letters?
A. The law requires card issuers provide a toll-free telephone number for consumers to call to exercise their rights to opt out. Major credit card issuers already provide customers with toll-free numbers, typically printed on the back of the credit card. However, consumer advocates recommend putting the request in writing as a precaution. (See a sample opt-out letter.)
Q. What should consumers do if credit card issuers charge late fees even though they didn't mail monthly statements 21 days before the due dates?
A. The law states card issuers cannot charge late fees if statements are not mailed or delivered (via e-mail) to consumers at least 21 days before the payment due date. That 21 days provides seven days for the bill to arrive in the consumer's mailbox, seven days for the consumer to review the bill and seven days for the payment to reach the credit card company.
Consumer advocates advise cardholders to open their mail promptly, look for the payment due date and pay their bills as soon as they arrive to avoid delays that can be caused by the U.S. Postal Service.
If you are charged a late fee in error, contact your credit card issuer. Ask to speak to a supervisor; the customer service representative may not be familiar with the new law. Ask the supervisor to credit the account for the amount of the late fee.
Q. How do consumers file complaints about credit card issuers that violate the Credit CARD Act?
A. A spokeswoman for the Federal Reserve recommends consumers first try to resolve their problems with their credit card issuers. If that fails, then contact a banking regulatory agency. Here's the problem: There is no one regulatory agency that handles consumer complaints about credit cards. Depending on the bank's charter, consumers may have to contact one of five different agencies:
- The Federal Reserve, which regulates banks that are members of the Federal Reserve System and some state banks.
- The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), which regulates national banks that have the word "national" or initials "N.A." in their names. These include the major credit card issuers, such as Bank of America, Citi and Chase.
- The National Credit Union Administration, which regulates national credit unions. These credit unions have the word "federal" in their names or are located in Delaware, South Dakota, Wyoming or Washington, D.C. In general, federal credit unions have charter numbers that are below 60,000, while state credit unions have charter numbers above 60,000. You can find the credit union's charter number by calling and asking.
- The Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS), which regulates thrifts, savings and loan associations and federally chartered savings banks (FSBs).
- State banking regulators, which oversee state-chartered banks and state-chartered credit unions. Check your state directory. In Florida, for instance, it is the Office of Financial Regulation. In New York, it is the New York State Banking Department.
For more information on the new credit card law, see a comprehensive guide to the Credit CARD Act of 2009.
See related: New credit card law set to start Aug. 20, A comprehensive guide to the Credit CARD Act of 2009, Fed issues final rules for first phase of Credit CARD Act, Will new credit card law help or hurt consumers, How to cope until the new credit card rules take effect, What the new credit card rules mean for you, Feds finalize sweeping new credit card rules, Interactive time line: How the bill became law, when its provisions take effect, Will the new credit card law hurt more consumers than it helps?, Annual fees return in credit card mail offers, Law alters cozy relationship between colleges, credit card issuers, New credit card rules don't cover business, corporate credit cards
Published: August 19, 2009