Bankcard Holders of America may be less of a force in consumer advocacy after Ruth Susswein, its executive director, steps down at the end of this month.

Ms. Susswein, the nonprofit group's director and spokeswoman for three years, is leaving to concentrate on caring for her newborn son.

The Salem, Va.-based organization is to spend the next three months considering whether Ms. Susswein will be replaced.

Over 17 years, Bankcard Holders has habitually agitated the credit card industry over such issues as annual fees and interest rates.

The self-styled watchdog, which is frequently quoted in the consumer press, also slammed individual banks that it believed offered products hostile to consumer rights and interests.

Ms. Susswein, a former consumer reporter for a Springfield, Mass., television station, became Bankcard Holders director after serving as assistant director under Gerri Detweiler, who left the top post in 1994. Ms. Susswein did not have an assistant director.

Like other small nonprofits, the organization suffers from limited funding, which comes from dues and the sale of publications.

Dues are $24 a year, but membership-which now totals 25,000-has been declining for years.

Bankcard Holders will continue to provide members with educational publications and serve as an information resource, "but the question is whether all the other stuff we did as a consumer group will continue," said Ms. Susswein.

Bankcard Holders has been a strong voice on policy issues.

Scott Olson, legislative director to Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy 2d, D-Mass., who has been interested in regulating credit card business practices, said, "We will mourn Ruth's loss. She was very valuable to some of the issues that Rep. Kennedy is interested in."

Rep. Kennedy introduced his Credit Card Consumer Protection Act on Thursday. (See page 2.)

"I'll miss the work, but I'm comforted by the fact that there are some consumer groups that will keep an eye on banks that don't do the right thing," said Ms. Susswein.

Stephen Brobeck, executive director of Washington-based Consumer Federation of America, for one, is stepping up. "My single-most important professional priority is to persuade consumers and creditors to reduce card debt," he said.

Other consumer advocates are not convinced they can serve credit card users as effectively as Bankcard Holders.

"The rest of us are generalists," said Edward Mierzwinksi, consumer director of U.S. Public Interest Research Group in Washington. "We try to cover the whole financial marketplace, but Bankcard Holders is out there full-time."

Industry professionals were less exercised. Charlotte Newton, vice president of consumer affairs for MasterCard International, said other consumer groups are doing a fine job of keeping abreast of card issues.

While Ms. Newton praised Ms. Susswein for "being serious about her responsibility to give out accurate information," the MasterCard executive added, "invariably she was always coming at it with one point of view."

Ms. Susswein plans to pursue other consumer-related projects.

Bankcard Holders' staff of five will be led temporarily by Gary Serotta, one of the group's founders.

Mr. Serotta's marketing firm, Serotta & Robinson, also serves as a marketing and financial management consultant to Bankcard Holders.

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