Credit Card Companies Punish their Best Customers

credit-card-squeezeThis blog has not exactly been kind to the big banks receiving billions in federal bailout funds, so when a letter arrived in my mailbox this week from Bank of America I couldn’t help but wonder if they were getting back at me. The letter said that BofA, which manages my Visa card, had decided to jack up the interest rate from a somewhat tolerable (by today’s standards) 9.99% to a more usurious 14.99%. “We are making this change,” it said, “due to a change in our business practices, and due to the pattern of payments and Annual Percentage Rates on the account.”

The fact that I always pay my bills on time and typically send in much more than the required minimum made me all the more suspicious. When I called to complain I got no clarification. Then I opened the Wall Street Journal and read that BofA had sent similar letters to several million cardholders who, like me, carry a balance from month to month. It used to be that credit card issuers encouraged people to follow that practice, since that is how the interest charges pile up. Now it seems that anyone who fails to immediately pay in full is a credit risk who must be punished with a higher rate—no matter how good their payment record.

BofA’s move is part of a pattern among credit card issuers to boost rates before restrictions on increases instituted by bank regulators last year take effect in July 2010. Similar moves have been made in recent months by the likes of Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase and American Express. AmEx went so far as to offer cardholders some several hundred dollars if they paid off their balance and closed the account.

I was angry at being treated as a potential deadbeat by a bank that contributed greatly to the near meltdown of the financial system and had to be propped up by $35 billion in federal capital infusions. Yet when I called customer service I was told that, not only could I terminate my old Visa and gradually pay off the balance at the existing rate, the bank was prepared to offer me a new card at that same interest rate—and transfer the unused credit line from the old card.

I don’t know how many of the millions of people affected by BofA’s new policy were also offered an identical replacement account. In my case, at least, all that BofA has accomplished is incurring additional costs from administering a second card. With a business model like this, taxpayers should probably kiss our $35 billion investment in BofA goodbye.

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