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And I'm Melissa Block.
Today, executives from some major banks were on the hot seat on Capitol Hill for the credit card fees and penalties they charge. One bank executive apologized to an aggrieved customer at the hearing. He said that in his case, the bank had simply blown it.
More from NPR's Jack Speer.
JACK SPEER: Testifying at today's hearing, Wesley Wannemacher said he learned the hard way how a relatively small charge on his credit card could quickly get out of control. In 2001, Wannemacher ran up $3,200 on his credit to pay for his wedding, including a photographer and flowers. He says he agreed to come to Washington to testify so others wouldn't have to go through what he did.
Mr. WESLEY WANNEMACHER (Chase Credit Card Customer, Lima Ohio): I'm only here to let people know what happened to me. From September of 2001 to February of 2007, I've paid Chase over $6,300. If they hadn't reviewed my account, I would have paid another $6,110 on a $3,200 debt.
SPEER: JP Morgan Chase, the company that issued Wannemacher his card, recently agreed to waive the rest of his debt. And the CEO of Chase Card Services, Richard Srednicki, in a rare public mea culpa, acknowledged things never should have gone as far as they did.
Mr. RICHARD SREDNICKI (CEO of Cardmember Services, JP Morgan Chase & Co.): I want to begin my remarks with a public apology to Mr. Wannemacher. We have policies and procedures in place at Chase to identify customers like him who have fallen into deep financial trouble and are finding it difficult to work their way out. In this case, we simply blew it.
SPEER: What emerged from today's hearing was the fact the Democratic-majority Congress is focusing much more intently on bank lending practices. Subcommittee chairman, Carl Levin, was clearly skeptical as he questions Srednicki about whether credit card customers understand the fine print.
Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan): You think most customers understand that the grace period only applies to people who pay their bill in full every month? You think most people understand that? Mr. Wannemacher sure didn't.
Mr. SREDNICKI: I think that the large majority of our customers do understand that, sir.
Senator LEVIN: Well, I disagree with that.
SPEER: As a result of recent hearings, several banks, including Chase and Citigroup, are announcing changes. Chase says it will no longer charge customers additional fees after a credit card customer exceeds their credit limit for more than a 90-day period. Last week, Citigroup said it will end two controversial practices. One, the so-called universal default, in which a card holder can be penalized for being late on a different credit card; and the other, a policy that allows banks to raise interest rates at any time.
Ed Yingling heads the American Bankers Association. He agrees the industry needs to do better.
Mr. ED YINGLING (President, American Bankers Association): The product has gotten very complicated. It is difficult for consumers to understand. And the industry recognizes that.
SPEER: Today's hearing comes at a time Americans continue to wrap their credit card debt. At the end of the last year, the Federal Reserve estimated outstanding credit card debt in the U.S. totaled between $750 billion and $800 billion.
Jack Speer, NPR News, Washington.
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