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The outrage in your credit card's fine print

Penalty fees make up nearly half of industry revenues.

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Would you sign a contract that says, "Any term can be changed at any time for any reason, including no reason"? Anyone who uses a credit card already has.

Such are the absurd terms of the consumer credit-card industry, which is poised to be the next big crisis (after housing) that banks have aided and abetted in US households.

Americans have now racked up nearly $1 trillion in credit-card debt. As housing equity shrinks and costs rise, agencies such as Moody's report swelling numbers of accounts with balances three or more payments past due. Reinforced by abusive industry practices, the plastic safety net is becoming a permanent cage.

But here's the good news: If you've ever been steamed by surprise fees on your credit-card statement or had your interest rate cranked up without warning, the Federal Reserve Board wants to help you. The Fed? That oracular secret society whose chairmen say Yoda-like things about interest rates? Well, actually, yes.

Ever since its remarkable "oversight" of junk lending led to the mortgage melt-down, the Fed seems determined not to let credit-card defaults drive the American banking system any closer to Third World standards.

There's plenty to reform. During the housing bubble, credit-card vendors inflated interest rates – even as the Fed slashed them – and found increasingly sneaky ways to usher their customers into perpetually indebted servitude. Such as:

•Raising rates as high as 32 percent on existing balances, with no notice, even when they've always been paid on time.


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