U.S. News

Five Tips for the New Credit Card Era

Leslie McFadden, Bankrate.com

Consumers will face new realities under the provisions of the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure, or CARD, Act, which was signed into law May 22, 2009. Two provisions went into effect that August, while most will take hold Feb. 22, 2010. A final phase rolls out next August.

Credit Cards

Here are a few tips for navigating key loopholes and protections in the new law.

1. Beware the advance notification exceptions.On Aug. 20, 2009, a provision that required 45 days' advance notification of "significant" terms changes took effect. It applies to fees and finance charges, as well as some rate increases. Loopholes in the law leave consumers unprotected in some situations.

For instance, the law doesn't require 45 days' advance notification for credit limit decreases. Consumers must keep abreast of their card limits each month. A silver lining: As of Feb. 22, consumers can't be zapped with overlimit fees for breaching a new, lower limit unless they have opted in to allow overlimit transactions.

Issuers also don't have to provide 45 days' advance notice of rate hikes triggered by a 60-day late payment, expiration of a promotional rate, termination or completion of a workout agreement, or shifts in a variable-indexed interest rate. If you have a variable APR, for example, your rate can ride increases in the index to which it is tied, such as the prime rate as published in The Wall Street Journal. Consult your card agreement to find out how your rate is calculated.

Read notices from your issuers, and verify the rate and credit limit each month when you get your monthly statement, especially before making a large purchase. Going near your credit limit can hammer your credit score.

Required advance notices must include an opt-out clause. Consider whether it makes sense to opt out if you dislike the proposed change. Opting out will close the account but ensures a "beneficial" repayment plan.

2. Don't fall into retroactive rate-hike loopholes.Come Feb. 22, existing balances will be protected in most circumstances from a rate increase. If you miss the due date by two months or more, however, the APR applied to that debt can skyrocket. Owe a balance after a promotional rate expires and your rate can increase up to the regular APR. If you hold variable-rate cards, your rate will inch up with upticks in the index. The prime rate is the index for most variable-rate credit cards.

You can't control the index if you have a variable-rate card, but you can make sure your payment arrives on time. Issuers now have to keep the same due date every month and send statements at least 21 days before the bill is due. They also can't charge a fee to pay by phone, Internet, mail or any other means, except to expedite a payment through a service representative. Use whatever method you find convenient to pay bills in a timely manner. Late fees ranged from $15 to $39 in a 2009 survey by Consumer Action, a San Francisco-based consumer advocacy group, which included 39 cards from 22 financial institutions.

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