Dear Credit Guy,
I opted out of a rate increase on my credit cards in May 2006. I have continued to make my payments and amortize the card, but the cardholder just raised my rates. I called and informed them this was illegal vis-a-vis my opt out, but they said they have the right to re-rate me. They also could not give me the complaint address for the FDIC. So, can they unilaterally cancel my opt out? -- David
Generally speaking, when a consumer opts out of a cardholder rate increase, the account(s) in question is closed. The catch is that you must send your "opt out" letter to the cardholder within the "opt out" period set by the card issuer's policy. No opt out form is issued by the lender; you must write the letter and send it in so that it is received on time. (Update: On Aug. 20, 2009, provisions of the Credit Card Act of 2009 went into effect that mandated consumers be given the right to opt out of increases in interest rates, fees, finance charges and certain other changes in credit card agreements. See story.)
I am hoping that since you believe strongly that you did indeed opt out of your card's rate increase that you kept copies of the letters informing your creditors that you wished to opt out and have corresponding receipts that prove the letters were received. If not, you might be up that proverbial creek without a paddle.
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Armed with the ammunition of your receipts and letters, I would contact your creditor again and explain that you have proof that you met the requirements for opting out of a rate increase.
Recognize that as of this writing, you do not have a legal right to opt out.* Giving consumers the right to opt out of credit card rate increases is done by company policy at most, but not all, credit card issuers, and those policies vary. So you may just be out of luck if the issuer has changed policies since your opt-out.
If you still get no satisfaction, you have several options:
Transfer the balances on your cards to another credit card. If you decide to do this, read the cardholder agreement carefully to assure that you are not jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.
Secure a loan from your bank or credit union and pay off the balances on your credit cards. An installment loan from your bank may have a slightly higher interest rate than what you are currently paying, but the terms will not change for the life of the loan.
Go up the chain of command ladder when you call your creditor until you get to someone who can make decisions regarding your account. Let the person know that you are aware of your rights as a cardholder, that you have proof that you opted out of the rate increase and that you plan to report the company to the Federal Trade Commission if it moves forward with raising your rate.
You are not the only one to complain about the practice of re-pricing an interest rate. A recent survey by the group Consumer Action found that 77 percent of surveyed card issuers (17 of 22) answered "yes" to the question: "Can you increase my APR or change my terms 'any time for any reason?' "
Regulators and legislators both have the practice under review. In July, a House committee passed the Credit Cardholders' Bill of Rights. The bill is expected to be heard in the House when it reconvenes in September. Among the items the bill addresses is the practice of many card issuers retroactively increasing interest rates. I predict many consumers and interested parties will be following this legislation with eager anticipation.
In addition, The Federal Reserve, Office of Thrift Supervision and National Credit Union Administration have submitted proposals to increase regulation of credit cards. The proposals include prohibiting a rate increase on an outstanding balance, except under limited circumstances, such as when a minimum payment has not been received within 30 days after the due date.
* As originally published, this column erroneously overstated the rights of consumers to opt out of rate increases. See CreditCards.com's corrections policy.
Todd Ossenfort is the chief operating officer for Pioneer Credit Counseling in Rapid City, S.D. Pioneer Credit Counseling has been a member of the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies since 1997.
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