Many consumers are glad to see that Congress and the Obama administration have waged war against the credit card industry. So am I. But it is too early to declare victory.
Until the Credit Cardholder Bill of Rights laws are finalized and take affect sometime next summer, credit card users will continue to deal with predatory lending practices.
Realizing that their time is running out, many credit card companies are busy imploring the very practices that the bill aims to stop. And credit card customers across the country are being slapped with such things as sudden interest rate hikes, excessive fees, double-cycle billing or charging interest on paid balances, and applying payments to low-interest balances before the higher-cost ones.
The new legislation will eventually give new protection to consumers concerning these abuses, but what can credit card customers do in the mean time?
I turned to credit card expert Bill Hardekopf, CEO of LowCards.com, to get some advice.
Q. Is it still worthwhile to shop for a cheaper credit card? Are credit card companies even offering competitive rates now?
Yes and yes. It’s true that it is very different world than a year ago. However, the credit card industry remains very competitive. Issuers still want to find new customers. They are not aiming to get customers with fair or poor credit. If you show that you are a great financial risk, you are going to have a tough time finding a new credit card. If you have good credit to excellent credit, you are going to have a good time finding a cheaper credit card. To reduce your risk, pay all of your bills on time, keep balances at no more than one-third of your credit limit and pay more than the minimum monthly payment.
Q. If you are maxed out on one card, is it a good idea to shift some of that balance to another card that allows a low-interest transfer?
Yes. There are still some balance transfer cards out there, but they are harder to find. They might not be for 0 percent or 2.99 percent, but higher. There are a couple of cautions with balance transfers. A few years ago there was a cap of $50 or $75 maximum on balance transfers. Now, many cards have no maximums. Companies such as Bank of American and Discovery are raising their balance transfer fees from 3 percent to 4 percent. The transfer rate applies only to the amount that you transfer. If you use the card, anything you purchase might be charged 15 percent or more. Look at the terms and conditions. When it comes to balance transfers, do the math. Ask if it is worth it to transfer this amount.
Q. Is it worth calling the credit card company to complain about an abrupt interest rate increase, especially if you have been a long-time customer?
Absolutely. If you get a rate hike, you don’t have to take it lying down. Don’t just get mad about it and don’t do anything about it. As a longstanding customer, you should pick up the phone and call and say, “You have raised my rate from X to Y percent. I’m looking at other offers, but I’d like to stay with you.” If they say no, ask to speak with a supervisor. If they say no, call back. Be persistent. If they continue to say no, shop for a new credit card.
Q. I bet a lot of people are forgetting to take full advantage of the rewards and perks that some credit cards offer. Should they be concerned about losing these benefits it they don’t use them now?
Yes, take advantage of them. If you have points for airlines or bookstore, redeem them now. Who is to say what could happen to some of those things. It’s just good common sense in general, if you have points or rewards, use them before you lose them.
To find good deals on credit cards or to compare rates and rewards, go to www.LowCards.com.
Vicki Lee Parker is a personal finance columnist in Raleigh. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (919) 877-5719.