For a product claiming to protect consumers from unforeseen misfortunes, banks' credit card payment protection plans have made plenty of enemies. A federal probe could give those opponents the upper hand for the first time.

Attorneys general and plaintiffs' lawyers have long alleged that payment protection plans, which promise to delay or cancel debts in the event of unemployment, illness, or death, are a poor value and sold to people who don't want them or can't use them. Banks return only 21 cents of every dollar in payment protection premiums to consumers in the form of suspended or cancelled debt, a gross payout ratio that would be flatly illegal if the products were categorized as insurance.

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