Citing fresh evidence of escalating credit card fees, consumer advocates on Thursday urged Congress to enact new protections for cardholders.

A Consumer Action survey in August and September of 117 cards from 74 banks found that most issuers have been increasing their use of penalty rates, raising late fees and over-the-limit charges, shortening grace periods, and lowering minimum monthly payments.

For instance, late fees at 39 of these banks that had also participated in a 1995 survey averaged $21.82-up from $12.53 three years ago. And 62 of the banks in the overall study charged customers more than $20 when they exceeded their credit limit, compared with only one in 1995.

"The rates we uncovered in our survey are far in excess of any added expense incurred by a bank," said Ken McEldowney, executive director of Consumer Action.

Catherine J. Cummings, vice president of consumer affairs for MasterCard International, said that overall, credit cards are cheaper because interest rates are dropping and annual fees are rarer. "Competition is driving prices down," she said.

The advocates urged Congress to revive a provision in the failed bankruptcy reform bill that would require issuers to disclose on statements how long it would take to pay off the balance if only the minimum monthly payments are made.

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