Credit Card Debt in the U.S.: An Ill-Fated Love Affair

By Brian Wolfman

Today's Washington Post contains a major article by Kathleen Day, entitled "A Highly Charged Relationship," about Americans' love for credit cards, but their vehement dislike for some of the credit card companies' practices -- practices hidden in the fine print until they spring into action. As Day puts it, "Call it a love affair with a dark side." Consumer complaints to federal banking regulators are about credit card companies more often than anything else. The third paragraph of the article gives you a sense of what the article is about:

The avalanche of gripes generally boils down to objections about a half-dozen practices, according to congressional staff and consumer groups. The complaints mostly center on what consumers see as unfairly high interest rates and penalty fees; confusing policies that constantly change, almost always in the lender's favor; and near-insurmountable hurdles to getting help when a consumer falls into trouble or when a company makes a billing mistake.

After the main article, the Post includes a series of vignettes -- under the title "Mad About Credit Card Companies" -- featuring real consumers who felt victimized by various credit card practices. Read about "over limit" fees and penalties; interest charges on the whole debt even when part of it has been paid; flat-out company billing errors (in the case discussed, Capital One harassed a dad mourning the death of a son who had left a debt of $217 -- Capital One erroneously insisted that the debt was more than 6 times greater); refusal to work with credit counselors who are trying to help the card holder; "workout plans" that don't reduce the consumer's debt; and "due dates" on days when it is literally or effectively impossible to make payment (here, the consumer paid in person at the bank on Saturday, in advance of the Sunday due date -- a date on which it was impossible to pay -- but since Saturday payments are not credited until the next business day, the consumer got hit with a late charge).