Stories of credit card companies raising interest rates on just about everybody—even customers with perfect credit, no debt, and no late payments—continue to roll in.
That’s because the CARD Act takes effect this winter and will restrict credit card companies’ ability to raise interest rates on existing customers. If you thought credit card companies were committing usury in the past with APRs of eighteen, or twenty percent; you ain’t seen nothing yet. Cardholders are seeing their rates go as high as 29.9 percent; there’s even a story of man who received a credit card offer at 79.9 percent APR!
How do you know if your card is raising your interest rate? What can you do about it?
How Credit Cards Raise APRs
In general, your credit card company must notify you of any changes to your account, including interest rate increases, by mail (or electronically if you have consented to receive legal disclosures online). Unless you pay late. Most cards’ terms and conditions include a clause that allows them to raise your interest rate if you pay late or go over your credit limit; no notification required.
Manage your cards well? You’re not immune to rate hikes.
My wife just received a notification from Citi that her interest rate will jump to 23.9 percent in December. That’s on a card with a $15,000 credit limit that does not have a balance and has always been paid in full. (We use the card for joint expenses each month and pay it in full).
She received a letter yesterday detailing the change. Unlike other rate increases I have seen, however, this notice had an interesting clause. If my wife were to transfer a balance of $3,000 or more to the card (plus a fee), Citi would actually lower her rate to 9.9 percent on the balance transfer and all future purchases until 2011. Obviously, Citi is just trying to make some money off this account. Since we always pay the balance in full and the card has no annual fee, they never get a dime from us in interest.
Just be sure to watch the mail.
A lot of these credit card rate increase notices look like junk mail. But if you miss them, you may miss your opportunity to opt-out of the rate increases.
How to Opt-Out of Rate Increases
When your credit card company raises your interest rate arbitrarily (i.e., not because you paid late), they must give you the opportunity to opt-out. Usually, you must contact the card’s customer service to opt-out. If you opt-out:
- You can pay off the existing card balance at your current (lower) interest rate.
- When the debt is paid off, or when the card expires, the credit card will be closed.
If you don’t opt-out by the specified deadline, your rate will go up and you won’t be able to do anything about it after the fact. So if you’re carrying a balance and your credit card company notifies you of an extreme rate increase, you should probably opt-out (unless you can pay off the balance in-full immediately). This is the time to forget about whatever effect closing your credit card has on your credit and just get far, far away from this nasty interest rate.
What to Do Next
If you’re not carrying a balance on the card that raised your interest rate, there’s little point to opting-out. As long as you don’t take on debt on that card, who cares about the APR? You might, however, be so outraged with the card company that you want to stop doing business with them. Or, you might want to preserve a lower APR “just in case” you need to revolve a balance on the card in the future.
In the past, customers with excellent payment histories could often be successful just calling up their credit card company and saying “Hey, I can get a 13 percent APR with Card ABC or Card XYZ, why should I stay with your card at 20 percent? What can you do for me?”
This strategy is certainly still worth a shot, although you can expect to have a harder time getting concessions from card companies. For one, they know that it’s harder for customers to switch to a new card (due to tightened credit requirements). Second, the card companies need the money. (Not that I expect you to have a lot of sympathy). But with sky-high default rates and the new laws limiting sneaky fees and interest rates that used to make credit card companies lots of cash, they’re trying to figure out how to make money on a totally new playing field. For now, that means charging even their best customers ridiculous interest rates.
Or, get a new card.
If you have really good credit and little or no credit card debt, you’re in luck, because you can probably apply and get approved for a new credit card at a much lower APR than on existing cards you have. (Most cards are offering new customers APRs ranging from 12 to 18 percent; not great, but better than 24 or 29 percent). Your best bet is to apply with companies that are actively seeking new creditworthy applicants, like Chase and Discover. Chase’s Freedom card has been a perennial favorite of card-critics for its simple rewards program, and the new Chase Slate card provides a lower rate, albeit no rewards, for customers who want the flexibility of paying some purchases over time.
- Compare and apply: See my list of recommended credit cards.
What about you? Have your credit card interest rates gone up? How high? What have you done about it? Please share your story in a comment.