Credit card issuers try hard to be consumer-friendly, pointing to their low interest rates, rebate programs, higher credit lines and lower monthly payments. But Ruth Susswein doesn't buy it.
Amid what she views as confusing advertising and debt traps, Ms. Susswein says consumer-friendliness is really the mantle of her association, Bankcard Holders of America, the self-styled voice of consumers on credit card issues.
"People know they can turn to us for information, money-saving ideas, and advocacy," she said in a recent interview at her modestly furnished office in the Washington suburb of McLean, Va.
The nonprofit group describes its mission as education. Though not a lobbying organization, it takes stands on issues such as personal privacy and bank market policies.
Two years in the post of executive director, Ms. Susswein has become a gadfly to be reckoned with in Washington circles and beyond.
This media-savvy former television news reporter recently unleashed her fury at the credit card banks Providian Bancorp. and Capital One Financial Corp. for increasing interest rates when cardholders' financial circumstances change, regardless of their payment behavior. Ms. Susswein called the practice, known as risk-based pricing, legal but "despicable."
She sees these perceived higher risks as the result of the banks' own aggressive marketing, which raises credit lines and encourages more borrowing. She said interest rates can double overnight, which she views as "a ploy to maintain higher profits."
In December, she testified at a public forum sponsored by Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy 2d, D-Mass., who wanted to call attention to rising debt and other consumer credit issues. She is currently helping the Federal Reserve create more stringent suggested steps for investigation and resolution of consumer charge disputes over unauthorized charges or defective merchandise.
Bankcard Holders, established in 1980, has offices in McLean and Salem, Va. It produces an array of publications such as the Low-Rate/No-Fee List, Consumer Credit Rights, and Debt Zapper, a personalized guide to reducing card debt.
Its eight employees also publish a bimonthly membership newsletter, BHA Bankcard Consumer News, highlighting what they say are the best and worst credit card offers.
The Card Sharks Award, a regular newsletter feature, is bestowed upon issuers that have implemented what the group sees as unsavory marketing methods. This month's winner was Capital One, for a fraud reduction scheme that allegedly puts pressure on consumers to spend more.
Bankcard Holders covers its operating budget through the sale of publications, which cost $1 to $15, and the $24 annual fees it collects from 30,000 members. Bankcard Holders offers itself as an information resource to state and federal legislators, journalists, reporters, analysts, and others.
In December, the group created a home page on the World Wide Web of the Internet (address http://www.epn.com/bha). The group also hopes to set up an E-mail system to handle customer queries in the near future.
Its leader gets her share of media attention. Ms. Susswein has appeared on all major television networks' news programs and has been quoted in major newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Newsday, Money Magazine, and Business Week.
In the past, Ms. Susswein, 36, was a consumer reporter for WGGB-TV in Springfield, Mass., and an associate producer at WABC-TV in New York.
She joined Bankcard Holders as assistant director in 1993, and graduated to executive director a year later when her predecessor, Gerri Detweiler, left to start a consulting business.
"Fairness is in the forefront of how we operate," said Ms. Susswein. But some bankers disagree.
"I wish they did their homework more thoroughly and understood financial dynamics a little more," said Collin G. McKenny, senior vice president of Star Banc Corp.'s card services group in Cincinnati. "My biggest concern is when I see consumer advocates talking about an unconscionable profit margin that just isn't there."
Ms. McKenny said Bankcard Holders doesn't take operating costs, delinquencies, chargeoffs, and convenience users into account when bashing bank profits.
"Sometimes they lose sight that all of us are in business to make money," said Cynthia A. Graham, president of Barnett Card Services, Jacksonville, Fla.
Ms. Susswein said she "fully expects bankers to earn a healthy living, (but) I'm in business to keep an eye on their practices."
She complained that issuers are trying to maintain "record levels of profits."
Ms. Susswein said she has good working relationships with many card issuers and considers AT&T Universal Card Services, AFBA Industrial Bank, and Wachovia Corp. among the most consumer-oriented companies.
"It's a pretty safe bet she'll comment on things that don't serve the consumer well," said Beverly B. Wells, president of Wachovia Card Services in Atlanta.
But Providian Bancorp spokeswoman Laurie Cole, who had to answer Bankcard Holders' risk-based-pricing criticisms last summer, said the group's "perspective on consumer needs is a narrow one."
"They seem to assume that all consumers can qualify for a high line of credit at a low rate, when in fact they cannot," Ms. Cole said.
Ms. Susswein said consumers should be responsible for their actions, but certain marketing practices "punish consumers in advance to get as much out of them as possible before they go bad."
Ms. Susswein has cordial relations with the MasterCard and Visa officials she has encountered in Washington. "We've never gone to battle, but at times we agree we disagree," said MasterCard senior vice president Charlotte Rush.
Other consumerists praise Bankcard Holders.
For years it "has been the most effective advocate for consumers on credit card issues," said Stephen Brobeck, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America. "They've been the most knowledgeable, outspoken, and the most visible informing not only consumers but also the industry and policymakers."
Edward Mierzwinski, consumer project director of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group in Washington, said the card industry has a "patina of competition that covers a foul underbelly of ripping off consumers." Bankcard Holders "does a great job" of protecting and educating cardholders, he said.
The organization got off to a dubious start in the 1980s as more of a marketing tool than an advocacy group. Insurance marketer David Reichberg provided funding and expertise for recruiting members, who became eligible for insurance policies at discounted rates.
Those connections were severed by 1986 through a protracted lawsuit, after organizers had become dissatisfied with the quality of the insurance products. A settlement of almost $250,000 nearly closed Bankcard Holders' doors. It was saved by a loan secured by one of the original founders, Gary Serotta.
He still provides consultations and inexpensive office space, said Ms. Susswein. The group now attracts members through direct mail touting its educational services, through press coverage, and through telephone inquiries.
Affinity marketing still makes up a small portion of annual funding. Last year members were offered discounted long-distance service.
But the group has always been focused on cardholders and their rights. Bankcard Holders said it provided literature and advice to 75,000 nonmembers in 1995.
"We give people the tools to empower them to make wise credit choices, stand up for themselves in credit disputes, and get the best deal on credit products," said Ms. Susswein.
She said she expects "consumers to be treated in a clear, straightforward, and honest manner if banks want loyal, valued customers." Issuers should "disclose the entire offer in print we can read, not just the part that leads me to think it's a good deal, even when it's not."