RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The new credit card law protects consumers against high fees, surprise hikes in interest rates, and abusive billing practices. It won't take effect until February, and some lawmakers want to push up that start date. They say credit card companies are taking advantage of the lag time to raise rates and slash credit limits.
NPR's Audie Cornish reports.
AUDIE CORNISH: The new law passed in May prevents banks from arbitrarily changing the interest rate on a customer's existing balance. It also bars banks, among other things, from charging interest on debt that a consumer has paid off on time. Last spring, bankers told Congress they needed time to reprogram computers and get ready for all the new rules. Meanwhile, lawmakers say, in the last few months card issuers have lowered credit limits, raised rates, and switched customers from fixed to variable rate cards.
Representative BARNEY FRANK (Democrat, Massachusetts): Too many in the banking system seem to think that they can return to the thrilling days of yesteryear, when the Lone Rangers will ride again unhindered by any kind of regulation, and that simply is not acceptable.
CORNISH: That's House Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank and he wants the new law to take effect on December 1st instead of waiting till 2010.
Ms. JANET THOMPSON: They should move it up to November.
CORNISH: Janet Thompson, visiting the Capitol from of Chevy Chase, Maryland, got letters recently from two of her credit card companies. The first bank doubled her interest rate. The second did the same — and when she argued the rate back down, the company slashed her credit limit from $7,000 to 500.
Ms. THOMPSON: They're taking advantage and they've made all sorts of money during this time by arbitrarily raising it. You know, we always pay early. We always pay more. You know, we'd like to pay it all off, but - and we used to do that every year when I was working, but I lost my job. I can't pay it all off.
CORNISH: And she doesn't want to close the credit accounts because that would ding her credit score. Thompson and her husband are now retirees carrying two mortgages. They're frustrated with the way they say their banks are treating them.
But the scenario Thompson describes is exactly why banks are changing rates, according to Scott Talbot of the Financial Services Roundtable.
Mr. SCOTT TALBOT (Financial Services Roundtable): We are in a recession, and there is a greater increased risk that a customer won't pay their credit card that's spread across the board, so even some customers who haven't done anything wrong, or not missed a payment or not been late, are seeing an increase in their interest rate or a decrease in their credit line simply because of the general increased riskiness in our current economy.
CORNISH: Talbot says December 1st is too soon to put that much regulation into action.
But Nick Bourke of the Safe Credit Cards Project at the Pew Charitable Trusts disagrees.
Mr. NICK BOURKE (Pew Charitable Trusts): What makes sense is to stop repricing outstanding balances as quickly as possible. You know, banks can stop doing that right away.
CORNISH: Bourke says some provisions of the law have and should go into effect as soon as possible to protect consumers. But other parts, like a rule that fees should be reasonable, need more time. It's going to be up to the Federal Reserve to figure out what terms like reasonable actually mean.
Mr. BOURKE: What I'm a little concerned about is that the Federal Reserve has enough time to make the right rules, and if the Fed doesn't have time to create really strong rules, then I think ultimately consumers will be hurt by that.
CORNISH: Still, the House Financial Services Committee plans to take up the legislation as early as this week. Congressman Frank says he's eager to move well before holiday shoppers hit the malls with their plastic.
Audie Cornish, NPR News, the Capitol.