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Credit-card fee outrage rising as economy slides

IDNUMBER 200901310024
PUBLICATION: The Guelph Mercury
DATE: 2009.01.31
BYLINE: Gary Norris
SOURCE: The Canadian Press
COPYRIGHT: © 2009 Torstar Corporation

Credit-card fee outrage rising as economy slides

Calls are rising for government action to scrutinize and control fees charged on credit cards.

The Retail Council of Canada said yesterday the system "is failing many Canadians," while the Canadian Community Reinvestment Coalition accused the federal Conservatives of "negligence" in bank regulation.

"At a time when many Canadians are struggling and businesses are challenged to decrease costs while still providing value to their customers, the fees charged by credit card companies and the banks that issue their cards are increasing," stated Diane Brisebois, president of the Retail Council, representing more than 40,000 store operators.

The merchants' group endorsed Senator Pierrette Ringuette's call for an investigation by the upper house's committee on banking, trade and commerce.

There were signs that bankers have heard the clamour, as TD Bank promised yesterday there will be "no new fees and no fee increases" for the rest of 2009 on credit cards and other personal and small-business products. TD also aborted a $35 fee it was planning to impose on inactive lines of credit.

"We've been listening to the concerns our customers and employees have been expressing, and we believe that this commitment is the right response in the current environment," stated Tim Hockey, president of TD Canada Trust.

But the retailers' group says existing card fees include an enormous hidden cost for average Canadians, amounting to $4.5 billion or more annually.

Among other things, they're demanding to know why the fees merchants pay on credit card transactions -- as much as two per cent -- increase proportionately with the size of the purchase, when a large transaction and a small one cost about the same to process.

The left-leaning Community Reinvestment Coalition, meanwhile, called this week's Conservative budget proposals on credit cards and bank lending weak and negligent.

Coalition chair Duff Conacher noted credit cards have become an essential service -- it's hard to buy an airline ticket or rent a hotel room without one, for example.

And he said the government "is continuing the negligence of past federal governments by subsidizing the big banks and other financial institutions with hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars while failing to effectively require them to maintain loans to creditworthy customers and serve everyone fairly and well at fair prices."

The Community Reinvestment Coalition favours requiring banks to prove through independent audits that their credit card and other interest rates and fees do not amount to gouging, with a public report issued by the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada.

The card industry is dominated by two providers, Visa and MasterCard, which work through the banks and other issuers. The business is still growing fast: the chartered banks tallied $53.4 billion in card balances in December, up 5.3 per cent from November and 10.1 per cent from a year earlier.

And credit card interest rates are hefty -- typically 11.5 to 19.75 per cent through the banks, depending on features, and 28 per cent on specialist retailer cards -- although no interest is paid if the balance is paid in full each month.

Cardholders also face a forbidding tangle of charges: the Retail Council says 55 per cent of Canadians have a poor understanding of card fees, according to a recent poll it commissioned.