Tuesday, April 7, 2009

A Credit Card You Want to Toss

A Credit Card You Want to Toss

Credit-card issuers have drawn fire for jacking up interest rates on cardholders who aren't behind on payments, but whose credit score has fallen for another reason. Now, some consumers complain, Bank of America (BAC) is hiking rates based on no apparent deterioration in their credit scores at all.

The major credit-card lender in mid-January sent letters notifying some responsible cardholders that it would more than double their rates to as high as 28%, without giving an explanation for the increase, according to copies of five letters obtained by BusinessWeek. Fine print at the end of the letter—headed "Important Amendment to Your Credit Card Agreement"—advised calling an 800-number for the reason, but consumers who called say they were unable to get a clear answer. "No one could give me an explanation," says Eric Fresch, a Huron (Ohio) engineer who is on time with his Bank of America card payments and knows of no decline in the status of his overall credit.

Bank of America spokeswoman Betty Riess confirms some bank cardholders could be receiving rate increases for reasons other than declines in credit scores, such as running higher balances with their Bank of America cards or with other creditors. She says the increases are part of a "periodic review" that assesses customers' credit risk. She declined to say if the Charlotte (N.C.) bank had changed its credit standards thereby bumping some consumers' rates or how many cardholders were being affected by the review. Bank of America has 40 million U.S. credit-card accounts.

Buzz about the letters is building on the Internet. Since mid-January Credit.com, a credit-card information site, has received 40 complaints from consumers Bank of America had notified of sharp rate increases, even though they were current on their bills, says Emily Davidson, a Credit.com researcher. Complaint sites My3cents.com and BankofAmericaBadforAmerica.org say they have also received similar complaints.

The so-called "opt-out" letters give borrowers the option of no longer using their card and paying off the balance at the old rate. But they must write Bank of America by later this month if they plan to do so—otherwise their rates on existing and new balances automatically rise.

Arbitrary Criteria

What's striking is how arbitrary the Bank of America rate increases appear, credit industry experts say. In recent years, many card companies have turned to a practice called "risk-based pricing," where they will raise a regular paying consumer's rate because of a decline in the person's FICO score. FICO is a credit-risk score developed by Fair Isaac (FIC) that includes a number of risk metrics the Minneapolis company doesn't disclose. Credit reporting bureaus supply creditors with FICO scores along with other data, such as late payments and debts owed.

In a December congressional hearing spearheaded by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), lawmakers slammed big card companies for using such pricing with customers who pay on time. By law, credit-card lenders can change terms as long as they notify borrowers. Even so, JPMorgan Chase (JPM) and Citigroup (C) announced ahead of Levin's hearing that they would stop the practice of raising card rates based solely on FICO scores.

But Bank of America appears to be taking an even more aggressive stance because, beyond credit scores, it is using internal criteria that aren't available to consumers. That makes the reason for the rate increase even more opaque. "Congress has faulted credit-card companies for lack of transparency in raising rates," says William Ryan, a financial industry analyst at Portales Partners, a New York-based research firm. "Bank of America is bringing it to a new level."

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