Credit squeeze underway

October 30, 2009 3:53:04 PM PDT
More than half of all credit card holders have been hit recently with sharply higher interest rates or other fees and penalties. We have more on the changes credit card companies are slipping through before a new federal law takes effect in February and what you can do if it happens to you.

Dr. Carin Van Gelder was furious when she opened her credit card bill and found out the interest rate on her Mastercard had suddenly shot up even though she always paid on time.

"It went up to almost 20 percent and there was no reason. I couldn't imagine why there was a reason," said Dr. Van Gelder.

The Consumer Reports National Research Center survey found a high rate of credit card complaints: 14 percent had their credit limits lowered recently, 29 percent were hit with new fees or penalties, and 38 percent said their interest rates had been hiked.

"Our survey found that fewer people are satisfied with credit card companies than with almost any other service we assess," said Kim Kleman of Consumer Reports.

After several hours on the phone and threatening to cancel the card, Dr. Van Gelder successfully got her interest rate back down to 12 percent.

"Calling up and complaining can be very effective. According to our survey, about half the time people got at least some of what they wanted," said Kleman.

If negotiating doesn't work, look for a card with better terms. Consumer Reports says you can often find better credit cards from professional organizations such as teachers' associations, from credit unions, and from community and regional banks.

"There are now often one-time fees on balance transfers, so before you switch to a new card make sure you check that," Kleman said.

Also, check if the new card carries an annual fee. That kind of charge is making an unwelcome comeback.

Lawmakers are also working on what's called the Overdraft Protection Act of 2009. It's designed to keep banks from charging outrageous overdraft fees on credit card holders who inadvertently exceed their balances, especially with their ATM cards.

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