Saturday, November 7, 2009

Credit Card Reform for Whom?

I've heard quite a bit of talk in the last year, as I'm sure most of you have, about credit card reform. These new laws were supposed to help protect consumers from shady credit card practices with the excessive charging of fees. These laws are set to go into effect next year.

I'm wondering though, who is this really helping? In this last year, my rates on four of my credit cards have jumped, and the credit lines were decreased. Was this because of me being late on my payments, or charging excessively? No. In fact, most of my cards didn't even have a balance, and I've never paid late. I also pay more than is due most of the time (though that overage amount hasn't been much lately because of my husband's hours being cut at work and our income dropping close to $1000 a month).

I know this isn't happening to us alone. I've heard many stories both online and in person of people getting their credit lines cut (even businesses) and their interest rates rising significantly. I empathized, but hadn't really been affected as much as some, since our rates only jumped half a percentage point at first, which was bearable, if annoying. And while our limits were cut, it didn't really hurt anything, except maybe our credit scores (which would recover eventually).

Still, it made me think. Who was this reform really helping? Certainly not those who have been utilizing their credit and making their payments on time. Certainly not people like me in middle America, who have been slammed by the economy, but have still been responsible in the use of credit and meeting payment obligations in whatever way we can.

There is one card we have been using in this last year to help us get by until Tony's hours improved a bit and we were finally approved to do the Making Home Affordable Plan (also known as HAMP or HASP) trial modification. This card had the lowest interest rate to begin with (at 9.99%) and was initially with Washington Mutual. It helped us when we needed two new sets of tires last winter. It helped us when our cat had a veterinary emergency. It payed the bill with the unexpected medical emergencies that came up in our family. You get the idea. It payed for those extras that we just couldn't come up with when the economy tanked and business went down here.

We haven't used it recently, since Tony is now finally up to 40 hours a week (still well below what we've gotten used to over the last 14 years, but much better than 32 hours a week) and we've been making the lower mortgage payment. Finally, we could see a way to catch up.

That is, until I got the notice from Chase (who took over WAMU). They were changing my interest rate. I'd already received a small rate hike of half a percent at the first of this year, which I took in stride. But this new rate was ridiculous. They changed my fixed rate to a variable rate, effective December 1, 2009. What did that mean for me? Well, starting on Dec 1, my rate would be double what I first had. Double! Can you believe that? I would be paying twice the interest every month! It would effectively be the monthly payment I'm currently making, all for just interest.

So I called them today. I asked them what I could do to prevent this. They said I could refuse the new terms. I asked what that meant for the account. They said I would have to close it. I asked if that meant I had to pay the balance in full, because there was no way I could do that right now. They answered no, that I just would be unable to use the account in the future, but would retain the current interest rate on the current balance until it was paid off. I said, "Close the account."

I hope everyone knows that is an option. I hope no one thinks they have to accept these new terms the credit card companies are imposing on them to make up for what they are losing out on when these new laws go into effect.

But I ask again, are these changes really worth it? I know it hasn't helped me. It's only hurt us. I'm struggling to think of a single person I know who it is going to help. Please, someone enlighten me.

Anyway, if something like this is affecting you or someone you love, please don't be afraid to make that phone call and see what your options are. If you don't understand or agree with the first person you talk to, call back and talk to someone else, or ask to be transferred. Fight for your rights. Take care and God bless!