Chris Lardner and her husband Scott own a small family business. Together they have three children, two daughters in college at Regis University in Denver , and a son in 7th grade. As a result of the economic downturn they resorted to paying for some of their daughters’ education with a credit card. As she approached the card limit, Lardner contacted the college to change the card on file, but the school charged another payment to the original card, which then put her above the limit. As a result the credit card company more than tripled her rate to nearly 30 percent.
So it was only appropriate that Chris introduced the President at his town hall in Rio Rancho, New Mexico this morning, where he emphasized his commitment to signing the Credit Card Bill of Rights into law by Memorial Day. He talked about the letter Chris wrote him last week:
She said: “If we conducted business this way, we’d have no business,” she wrote. “And if this is happening to us, I can only imagine what’s going on in homes less fortunate than ours.”
You all know what Chris is talking about. I know. I remember. It hasn’t been that long since I had my credit card, sometimes working that a little bit. (Laughter.) We’re lured in by ads and mailings that hook us with the promise of low rates while keeping the right to raise those rates at any time for any reason — even on old purchases; even when you make a late payment on a different card. Right now credit card companies charge more than $15 billion a year in penalty fees. One in five Americans carry a balance that has been charged interest rates above 20 percent. Sometimes they even raise rates on outstanding balances even when you’ve paid your bills on time.
Now, I understand that many Americans are defaulting on their debt, and that’s why these companies claim the need to raise rates. One of the causes of this economic crisis was that too many people were living beyond their means with mortgages they couldn’t afford, buying things they couldn’t pay for, maxing out on credit cards that they couldn’t pay down. And in the last decade, Americans’ credit card debt has increased by 25 percent. Nearly half of all Americans carry a balance on their cards, and those who do have an average balance over $7,000.
So we have been complicit in these problems. We’ve contributed to our own problems. We’ve got to change how we operate. But these practices, they’ve only grown worse in the midst of this recession, when hardworking Americans can afford them least. Now fees silently appear. Payment deadlines suddenly move. Millions of cardholders have seen their interest rates jump in the past six months.
You should not have to worry that when you sign up for a credit card, you’re signing away all your rights. You shouldn’t need a magnifying glass or a law degree to read the fine print that sometimes don’t even appear to be written in English — or Spanish. (Applause.) And frankly, when you’re trying to navigate your way through this economy, you shouldn’t feel like you’re getting ripped off by “any time, any reason” rate hikes, and payment deadlines that seem to move around every month. That happen to anybody? You think you’re supposed to pay it this day, and suddenly — and it’s never on the end of the month where you’re paying all the rest of your bills, right? It’s like on the 19th. All kinds of harsh penalties and fees that you never knew about.
Enough is enough. It’s time for strong, reliable protections for our consumers. It’s time for reform that’s built on transparency and accountability and mutual responsibility — values fundamental to the new foundation we seek to build for our economy.