Strategies Available to Fight Credit-Card Fees

Credit-card fees have been rising in recent years. But what many people don't know is that you don't always have to pay those fees. And if your credit is good — and you know who to ask — you might not have to pay any interest either, for months or even years.

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Many Americans are still paying off the credit card bills they built up over the holidays. It may not have to cost you quite as much as you think. Many Americans are paying extra because the average credit card interest rate exceeds 15 percent and the average late fee has tripled in recent years. If you know how to push back, though, it is easier than you might think to have those fees waived and your interest rate lowered.

NPR's Chris Arnold reports.

CHRIS ARNOLD: The next time you open a credit card bill and start mumbling expletives about a fee or the interest charge, try this. Take your credit card out of your wallet, turn it over - on the back there's an 800-number.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIALING ALPHANUMERIC PHONE)

Unidentified Woman: Welcome to credit card services. Please enter the last four digits of your account number.

ARNOLD: They call this the customer service or billing inquiries number, but if you've got decent credit, at least a couple of times a year, it can be your get-out-of-jail free number. Ed Mierzwinski is with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. He says consumers should regularly be calling their credit card companies to ask them to waive fees and lower their interest rates.

ED MIERZWINSKI: You could easily save hundreds of dollars a year, in some cases, thousands of dollars a year, in interest.

ARNOLD: Consumer advocates say one reason credit card companies may be willing to waive fees these days is because they've been nickeling and diming their customers with new and bigger fees. But it turns out just about all the charges on your credit card bill are negotiable. Nessa Feddis is a lawyer with the American Bankers Association.

NESSA FEDDIS: It's certainly worth giving it a try. And if you're a good customer, you've a much better chance of getting it waived.

ARNOLD: By good customer, Feddis means somebody with decent credit who almost always pays their bill on time. For people like that, if you're late once or twice a year, you stand a good chance of getting a fee waived. If you hardly ever run a balance and get stuck for a month or two and can't pay it off, a credit card company might even waive the interest in full if you call and push for it.

Mierzwinski says another thing everybody should try to do is get their interest rate lowered, especially if they regularly carry a balance.

MIERZWINSKI: The half of consumers who carry balances carry balances of $800 billion in total or about $8,000 to $10,000 per person on all their cards.

ARNOLD: And Mierzwinski says odds are if they just picked up the phone, they could get their interest rate knocked down quite a bit in a matter of minutes. That's what his group found in a study.

MIERZWINSKI: Over half the consumers who called were able to lower their rates by an average of one-third.

ARNOLD: So what should you say when you call? Rick Doble lives in North Carolina and runs a Web site advising people on how to haggle for all kinds of discounts, including on their credit card bill.

RICK DOBLE: Essentially, you're involved in a negotiation. I think that's the way to think about it.

ARNOLD: The reality is there are already more than twice as many credit cards issued as there are people in the entire country. So to grow, companies need to lure customers away from competitors and hang on to the good ones they already have.

DOBLE: You say, well, I've got this great balance transfer offer from another company. I think I'll just go with that company. That line in particular, for example, might get them to change their mind.

ARNOLD: And if that doesn't work, Doble says always be polite but ask for a supervisor, even if the customer service person says that won't help, Doble says often it actually will.

Chris Arnold, NPR News.

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