MONEY

What credit card legislation means for you

Consumers scored a major victory on Tuesday as the Senate voted overwhelmingly in favor of a bill that restricts unfair credit card practices. The Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act passed by a 90-5 margin. The bill comes on the heels of similar legislation, known as the Credit Cardholders Bill of Rights, that was approved by the House on April 30 in 357 to 70 vote.

So what happens now? The Senate bill heads back to the House for a vote, and there’s a good chance it could hit the President’s desk before Memorial Day. But what do both bills mean for your wallet? Let’s look at the key provisions:

Retroactive rate hikes: Both bills ban hikes to interest rates on existing balances. So say you carry a $1,000 balance at 8%. If the rate on your card changes, the new rate will apply only to new purchases going forward—the issuer won’t be able to start charging 19% on the previous balance. The only catch: If you fail to comply with a debt repayment workout plan or if you are more than 30 days (House bill) or 60 days (Senate bill) late on payments, all bets are off. What’s more, both bills prevent issuers from raising your interest rate during the first year of the card account.

Penalty periods: If you are late and your rate goes up, the Senate bill states that if you pay your bill on time for 6 months in a row, you can reclaim the lower rate.

Advance notification: Time was, your issuer could jack your card’s rate and only give you 15 days notice. No more. Both bills require that issuers must give you 45 days notice before making significant interest rate, fee and finance charge increases.

Teaser rates: Both bills require that promotional rates must be offered for at least six months.

Payment allocation: You may have a balance transfer on your card at one rate, while other purchases or balances accrue interest at a different, higher rate. Before this legislation, banks could apply your payment to the balance with the lowest interest rate first—so your more costly balance just kept racking up interest. Now, payments in excess of the minimum amount owed must first be applied to the balance with the highest interest rate first, and then to remaining balances in descending order.

Due dates: Credit card statements must be mailed 21 days before the bill is due, up from the current 14. And no more odd timing deadlines for payments—payments received by 5 p.m. on the due date are on time. Payments with due dates that fall on holidays or weekends must be accepted by the next business day.

Over-the-limit fees: Before, if you tried to charge above your credit limit, the issuer would approve the transaction and slap you with an “over-the-limit” fee. Now, consumers must opt in for over-the-limit approval—and the fees that come with it.

Cards for young adults: The House bill stipulates that banks can’t issue cards to un-emancipated minors under the age of 18 unless a parent is the account holder. It also limits college students to just one credit card, sets credit limits to a percentage of the student’s income and requires parents to approve increases to credit limits on joint accounts. The Senate bill takes it even further, eliminating credit cards for people under the age of 21 unless an adult co-signs or they can show proof of income.

Gift cards: The House bill doesn’t touch them, but the Senate bill states that gift cards can’t expire in less than five years. Retailers selling Visa, MasterCard, American Express or Discover-branded gift cards will have to print information on dormancy fees—charged when the card goes unused for a while—right on the cards themselves.

Universal default: Both bills eliminate this practice, which allows a card issuer to raise your rates if it learns that you were late on another card.

Account closings: The Senate bill doesn’t address it, but the House bill requires an issuer give you 30 days notice before it closes your account.

Many of the provisions in these bills are already addressed in the Fed’s credit card regulations, which are slated to take effect in July 2010. Will this legislation make it happen sooner? The House bill was scheduled to take effect 12 months after passage, while the Senate bill planned for nine. We’ll keep you updated on what the final law looks like–and when you might start benefiting from it.

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