NEW YORK -- American Express Co. is honoring National Consumer Week by firing off some familiar-looking statistics that put the bank card industry in a bad light.

A dictionary of credit terms and a "Checklist of Getting and Keeping Credit Cards" are part of the package.

But American Express also trotted out the seven-month-old results of a study by Princeton Survey Research Associates that details what cardholders know and don't know about credit cards.

"We think the results of the survey are relevant to our publication of the dictionary, because the survey shows there is a lack of understanding of credit terms and issues," said Meredith M. Layer, senior vice president, office of public responsibility at American Express.

Lack of Knowledge Seen

The survey of 2,000 credit card users was first released in April at American Express' national teleconference on financial responsibility. The occasion was National Credit Education Week.

Representatives of major consumer, educational, and government groups in nine cities were part of the conference via satellite.

The survey found, among other things, that 48% of consumers describe their knowledge of credit card fees and interest charges as being fair or worse.

Survey Called into Question

In addition, 36% of cardholders don't know what the annual interest rate is on their credit card, or whether their card charges other fees, such as late payment charges.

Inspired by a recent article about fee income in American Banker, according to a spokeswoman, American Express also pointed to an American Bankers Association's annual card survey, which reported a 45% increase in credit card fees. The rise in fees, American Express maintains, is a direct result of declining interest rates.

Officials from Visa U.S.A. and MasterCard International Inc. questioned the survey.

Charlotte Rush, MasterCard's vice president of public affairs, said MasterCard's research shows consumers are fairly well informed about their interest rates and annual fees.

"The issues that consumers were concerned about included knowing their rights in light of the Truth-in-Lending laws, and how to manage their money wisely," said Ms. Rush.

A Different Picture

A Visa survey conducted last year showed that 78% of consumers polled said their cards had competitive rates and annual fees.

"There is a lot of underestimating of the consumer's intelligence," said Visa U.S.A. spokesman David Brancoli.

"Someone should really ask what carrying an American Express card costs the consumer," he said, in a reference to American Express' annual fee.

Robert B. McKinley, president of Ram Research Corp., believes that consumer ignorance results from apathy.

"Every survey in the Eighties confirmed that consumers didn't care about their credit cards," said Mr. McKinley.

He said he believes consumers are more interested now, however, and that the American Express figures actually show an improvement over past surveys.

Mr. McKinley added he could understand American Express' "drawing attention to the rise in fees, because their annual fee is perceived as a negative," when many Visas and MasterCards carry no annual fee.

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