by Bill Hardekopf
This past year was a very eventful one in the debit and credit card industry. Here is a review of the top ten stories of 2011:
1. Debit Card Interchange Fee
The government regulation of the debit card interchange fee was the most controversial issue of the year. The Durbin Amendment to the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul bill went into effect on October 1. Before the legislation, the interchange fee averaged 44 cents per transaction. Now, the reduced fee is 21 cents plus an additional amount to cover losses from fraud. This cost the banks billions of dollars in lost revenue. The interchange fee was intended to resolve a bitter issue for merchants, but it also ignited unintended consequences for consumers, such as banks dropping rewards for debit card purchases in the spring and proposing to add fees for debit card usage in the fall.
2. Banks Add, Then Rescind, Debit Card Fees
A number of banks introduced a debit card fee of $3 to $5 each month that the debit card was used for a purchase in order to make up for the revenue lost from the reduced interchange fee. But the public rebelled when Bank of America added the $5 fee in September. This fee received condemnations from consumers, Congress, and President Obama. Some consumers even declared a "Bank Transfer Day" on November 5. Banks quickly backed down and dropped the fee at the end of October.
3. Greater Rewards for Credit Card Consumers
After the credit crash in 2008, credit card issuers cut back on the rewards offered to new cardholders. But in 2011, nearly every issuer ramped up the rewards, trying to attract new customers with good or excellent credit scores. Rewards are used to compete for new cardholders, as well as to encourage credit card spending and regular usage.
Some cards now offer very attractive bonuses based on usage. The Chase Freedom card began offering a $200 cash back bonus once a new cardholder spent $500 during the first three months. Capital One Cash was introduced during the year and offers a 50% cash back bonus on all you earn each year, plus an additional $100 bonus for spending $500 on the card during the first 90 days.
Earlier in the year, there were extremely attractive airline rewards. In March, Capital One created a buzz with the heavily promoted "Match My Miles Challenge" where consumers could earn up to 100,000 miles by switching and spending on the Venture Card. Chase followed with a promotion on the British Airways card where cardholders could receive an extra 100,000 miles by becoming a customer and reaching a certain spending level.
4. More Attractive Balance Transfer Offers
Balance transfer offers were also strong throughout the year. Issuers used very attractive offers to lure credit card customers to transfer their existing balance from a competitive card. Nearly every major issuer currently has a card where consumers can receive 0% APR for an extended period of time, including Slate from Chase for 12 months, Capital One Platinum Prestige for 15 months, Discover More for 18 months, and Citi Platinum Select for 21 months.
5. Mobile Payments
Google Wallet debuted in September and mobile payments became a payment option for some smartphone users. Mobile payments allow consumers to make purchases or transfer money with a quick application downloaded to a mobile phone. Even though mobile payment systems are now available, plastic cards and cash won't vanish tomorrow. Consumers and retailers will need convincing and incentives to make the switch. Consumers won't save money by paying with a mobile phone. The same fees and interest rates for consumers and interchange fees for retailers will apply to mobile payments. Retailers are also reluctant to spend the money to buy the equipment necessary to link your cell phone to their cash registers.
6. Defaults and Delinquency Rates Decline
It is a much healthier environment for credit card issuers in 2011. Credit card defaults and delinquencies declined during most months this year. Credit cardholders and issuers both made changes over the past couple years that brought an excessive system of credit card borrowing and lending back under control. Many of the borrowers who could not pay off their debt had already defaulted, while others have diligently paid down their balances and used other forms of payment to avoid the high interest rate penalties. Credit card issuers closed risky accounts, cut credit limits on millions of accounts, and tightened lending standards to cut their risk of defaults and late payments.
7. Credit Card Issuers Drop Some Fees
Some banks tried to polish their tarnished image by dropping some credit card fees. Chase is now offering a Slate card that for a limited time does not charge a 3% fee for balances transferred during the first 30 days that the card is open. Other issuers have eliminated the foreign transaction fee on certain cards. Discover dropped its 2% foreign transaction fee. Chase eliminated its 3% foreign transaction fee on the Sapphire Preferred card, and Citi dropped its 3% fee from the ThankYou Premier and ThankYou Prestige cards. Avoiding the foreign transaction fee is a significant savings for travelers, but also for consumers who makes a purchase from another country or even a purchase that is routed through a foreign bank.
8. Additional Protections for Cardholders
The Federal Reserve Board approved a rule designed to provide additional protections for credit card consumers. The Board's rule amended Regulation Z (Truth in Lending) to clarify prior rules implementing the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009 (CARD Act).
The CARD Act required issuers to consider a consumer's ability to make payments before opening a new credit card account or increasing the credit limit on an existing account. Issuers must consider the consumer's individual income or salary. The application can no longer request "household income" because that term is too vague. As a result, stay-at-home parents now find it much more difficult to be approved for a credit card.
It also clarified that promotional programs, like introductory rates that waive interest charges for a specified period of time, must follow the same rules as promotional programs that apply a reduced rate for a specified period. Offers that waive interest charges during an intro period cannot revoke the waiver and charge interest during the intro period, unless the account becomes more than 60 days delinquent.
9. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Opens
Credit cardholders now have a place to file a complaint against their credit card issuer. The new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) was created by Congress through the Dodd-Frank Act. While it still does not have a director, it opened in July. It offers consumers webpage just for credit card complaints. During its first three months of operation (July 21 through October 21), the agency received 5,074 complaints. The most common complaints involved billing disputes (13.4%), interest rates (11.0%), and identity theft or fraud (10.8%). Most of the complaints (84%) were sent to credit card issuers for review and response. Issuers reported either full or partial resolution of 74% of the forwarded complaints, and 71 percent of these consumers did not dispute the responses provided.
10. Government Issues Debit Cards for Tax Refunds
The U.S. Treasury started issuing debit cards (MyAccountCard Visa Prepaid Debit Card) instead of paper checks for tax refunds to low income individuals. The Treasury Department is converting to debit cards for several reasons. For the government, they are less costly to mail than checks. For the recipient, they provide a safer, faster and more convenient way to distribute money than checks. Many low income individuals do not have bank accounts and the cashing of these refund checks can be costly. Ideally, these cards reach consumers six weeks earlier than a check. The government hopes the distribution of these cards cuts down on the costly refund anticipation loans than many low income consumers receive.
Bill Hardekopf is CEO of LowCards.com, a site that simplifies the confusion of shopping for credit cards. It is a free, independent website that helps consumers easily compare credit cards in a variety of categories, such as lowest rates, rewards, rebates, balance transfers and lowest introductory rates. It also gives an unbiased ranking and review for each card.