WASHINGTON Credit card issuers are charging less in penalties and doing a better job of disclosing previously hidden fees, according to a report by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
But the agency said it is still scrutinizing credit card practices because of other concerns, such as high annual fees, deceptive add-on product offerings and deferred interest rate specials that catch consumers off guard.
The report was intended to gauge the state of the credit card market following the enactment of the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act in 2010. For the most part, CFPB officials said the market is more consumer-friendly, even if they are paying higher fees.
"We did find that annual fees and interest rates have increased since 2008, which indicates a shift from hidden back-end pricing toward more transparent front-end pricing that consumers can understand and evaluate more easily," said CFPB Director Richard Cordray in prepared remarks at a field hearing in Chicago on Oct. 2. "In this market, shopping for a credit card and comparing costs are far more straightforward. And every credit card user can now make a purchase confident that when the bill comes due, the interest rate will not have skyrocketed without notice."
But the CFPB has started cracking down on other credit card practices, including deceptive marketing of add-on products. Last month, the agency forced JPMorgan Chase to pay back nearly $390 million to consumers and fined it $20 million for charges related to alleged "unfair billing practices" on an identity-theft product.
"We will continue to use both our supervisory and enforcement authorities to protect consumers by rooting out unfair, deceptive, or abusive acts or practices," Cordray said.
Cordray also said the agency plans to do a study on deferred interest products in which card issuers typically offer a 0% interest rate for a certain period of time but can sometimes retroactively charge interest on a balance that was not paid off within that timeframe.
"The data we obtained indicates that over 40% of borrowers with subprime credit histories end up being charged retroactive interest," Cordray said. "We will be examining the risks and benefits of such products and will take action if it appears to be justified."
Overall, however, the agency found that the total cost of credit has declined by two percentage points between 2008 and 2012 largely because of restrictions placed on issuers through the CARD Act. For example, the rule restricts how much an issuer can charge in late fees. This resulted in a $6 drop in the average late fee following the CARD Act.
"That means that these consumers paid $1.5 billion less in late fees in 2012 than they would have paid had late fees remained at their pre-CARD Act levels," Cordray said.
Credit card availability has also dropped partly because of the credit crunch but also because of a restriction in the CARD Act that limits issuers from expanding credit card limits at will and from targeting young college students. Because of this, the CFPB found that the amount of credit card holders under 21 years old has dropped in half in recent years.
"This decrease, which contributes to the decline in available credit, is an intended consequence of the CARD Act and is good news in promoting responsible access to credit," Cordray said.
But there were a handful of issues that Cordray said the agency would dig further into largely related to disclosures of billing statements online, rewards programs and grace periods. Although issuers are more transparent, Corday said there is still some information lacking, particularly for online disclosures compared to monthly paper statements that have to comply with the CARD Act.
"We will be monitoring the steps that card issuers take to provide consumers with these beneficial disclosures when they access their accounts in different ways," Cordray said.