Are high credit card fees pricing plastic out of the market?
Some businesses are putting the kibosh on credit cards to avoid paying processing fees that run about 2% of the transaction amount. In other words, every time you buy something for $100 with plastic, it costs the merchant nearly $2 in processing fees.
Multiply that by hundreds or even thousands of daily transactions, and that can add up to some serious coin. Typically, those costs are passed along to customers in the form of higher prices.
The financial services giant John Hancock is the latest to slam the door on credit cards, telling customers it will no longer accept payments via plastic for long-term-care insurance premiums.
"The decision to discontinue this option is due to the high fees associated with this billing method," the company said in a recent letter to ratepayers. Customers were advised to make payments either by check or by automatic deductions from their checking accounts.
Susan Shershow, 68, of West Los Angeles said that although she's been happy making credit card payments for her John Hancock premiums, it won't be a problem to switch to paying by check.
"I worry more about all the people who need to charge it and then pay it out over time," she said. "I know a lot of people like that, and it's going to be much harder for them."
The processing fees in question are known as interchange fees, and they're a major money spinner for card issuers. Merchants and consumer groups have long criticized the fees for being unreasonable and out of proportion with the actual cost of handling transactions.
Banks counter that they need such fees to maintain the integrity of their computer networks as well as to fund anti-fraud efforts.
Most of the attention in recent months has been focused on fees for processing debit cards. On Wednesday, the Federal Reserve capped the base fee that can be charged at 21 cents per transaction, on average — well below the current average of 44 cents but higher than an originally proposed 12-cent cap.
The Fed determined that a 21-cent fee (plus a little extra for fraud protection) is a "reasonable and proportional" price for moving money in the digital age. The new limit takes effect Oct. 21.
Credit card fees, meanwhile, have largely gotten a pass from federal authorities, although financial reforms signed into law in 2009 required that the Government Accountability Office look into how these fees affect consumers.
A subsequent report concluded that "consumers who do not use credit cards may be paying higher prices for goods and service, as merchants pass on their increasing card acceptance costs to all of their customers."
It also found that the benefits to merchants of accepting credit cards — convenience, increased sales — can be offset by higher costs.
"Authorities in more than 30 countries have taken or are considering taking actions to address such fees and other card network practices," the report noted.
David Robertson is publisher of the Nilson Report, an influential trade journal covering the credit- and debit-card industry. He said it's not surprising that some businesses, especially those that rely on recurring payments from customers, would want to turn away from credit cards.
"This allows them to cut costs and improve their bottom line," Robertson said.
But he maintained that processing fees for credit cards are reasonable because banks have to borrow money to cover people's purchases.
"It's not like a debit card," Robertson said. "The bank has to fund the purchase and doesn't get your money for 30 days."
Be that as it may, it's unclear whether the cost to the bank is anywhere close to 2% of the transaction amount. Banks decline to specify their actual costs, saying this is proprietary information.
John Hancock, for one, has crunched the numbers and concluded that a 2% fee doesn't add up.
As with debit cards, I suspect we'll see more interest from federal officials in determining the true cost of credit card use. No one begrudges banks a fair profit for their services.
But they have yet to clearly show why they deserve 2% of a merchant's action — why swiping a card for a $10 purchase should cost 20 cents, while that same swipe for a $1,000 purchase should cost $20.
Until they do, it doesn't seem unreasonable to think the banks are making out like bandits.
Speaking of credit cards, I wrote recently about how Anthem Blue Cross planned to no longer accept automatic payments by plastic because of the high processing fee.
The health insurance heavyweight said ratepayers could still pay with credit cards, but they'd have to fork over a $15 "convenience fee" for doing so each month.
Anthem said it would reconsider the policy change after I pointed out that, according to Section 1748.1 of the California Civil Code, "no retailer in any sales, service or lease transaction with a consumer may impose a surcharge on a cardholder who elects to use a credit card in lieu of payment by cash, check, or similar means."
A number of Anthem ratepayers subsequently contacted me to say the company's service reps are telling people the fee will be imposed as planned. But Kristin Binns, an Anthem spokeswoman, told me no decision has been made.
I've also gotten many emails asking why some California gas stations get away with charging higher pump prices if you pay with a credit card. Actually, what they're doing is offering a modest discount for cash payments, which is legal.