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Many Credit Rates Inching Higher : Consumers: Issuers of variable cards don’t have to notify their customers of the adjustments.

WASHINGTON POST

It’s time to start reading the fine print on your credit card statement again.

Steadily declining interest rates have lulled many card holders into believing credit costs are a problem of the past. As consumer and political pressures rose in recent years, many card issuers did reduce rates, especially for their better customers. From 1990 until last year, according to Ram Research Corp., a research and publishing firm in Frederick, Md., average credit card interest rates fell from 19.23% to 17.25%.

But many card issuers also made another change. They switched from fixed to variable interest rates, meaning that every quarter, or even monthly, they can raise the rates they charge. Issuers of variable-rate credit cards aren’t legally required to tell customers, said Robert B. McKinley of Ram Research.

Holders of variable-rate cards can tell if the rate has changed by looking at the little box at the bottom of the monthly statement, noting the rate and comparing the statement with others from previous months, McKinley said.

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Issuers of fixed-rate cards must still notify customers of any rate change and give them a chance to stop using the card. But about 60% of the cards in use now are variable, McKinley said.

“What we are seeing is the first spike in rates in two years,” he said. “There has been a steady decline as rates have worked their way down, but there is good news and bad news: Consumers should be paying much lower rates (from a few years ago), but the bad news is, most of the cards are variable and (consumers) will be feeling (increases) more quickly than in the past.”

Variable-rate cards typically are indexed to some general market rate. This is often the prime rate but may be something else. Signet Bank, for example, offers a Visa card indexed to the London Interbank Offered Rate, known as Libor. The key rates have risen several times this year; the prime has gone to 7.75% from 6% in January.

If your statement shows your rate has risen, you have alternatives. The business remains very competitive. Some issuers haven’t raised rates; others will cut a deal to keep a good customer. Still others, anxious to expand their market share, are offering low introductory rates, typically for a few months but in some cases for as long as a year.

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“We are seeing a lot of teaser rates, but if a teaser rate lasts at least a year it’s worth getting,” said Ruth Susswein of Bankcard Holders of America, a consumer group based in McLean, Va.

In McKinley’s view, if you find the rate on your card is more than 15%, it’s time to go shopping. The first step is to call your issuer’s customer service line and ask for a lower rate. Say that you will close the account if you don’t get one.

“Bear in mind, if you carry a balance of at least $2,000, charge at least $3,000 a year and have a responsible record, you have a great deal of leverage,” McKinley said.

If the issuer won’t deal, you can call local banks or refer to a listing of low-rate cards. McKinley’s group offers such a list for $5; Bankcard Holders has one for $4.

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