More consumers are taking their complaints about credit card interest rate increases to court. In the latest of a spate of lawsuits, Citigroup's Travelers Bank was accused last month in Delaware Superior Court of bumping up promised interest rates on balance transfers.
Bank One Corp.'s First USA unit is the defendant in three pricing lawsuits across the country.
A consumer advocacy group recently sued Chevy Chase Bank, claiming it had cheated credit card customers out of millions of dollars by raising interest rates above a promised cap.
The plaintiffs claim to be victims of unfair pricing practices and fraudulent solicitations. But some legal experts say most of these complaints arise from simple billing errors and confusion stemming from the vast number of rate offers.
"I don't think issuers intentionally charge wrong rates," said Anita Boomstein, a partner at Hughes, Hubbard & Reed in New York. "It costs issuers so much money to book an account, and they want customers to stay with them, so I don't think they would mess with customers they had just acquired."
The lawsuit against Travelers Bank, filed by John and Maureen Goodwin of Paradise Valley, Ariz., says the bank sent out a series of solicitations offering a 6.9% rate on balance transfers, with a jump to 15.4% after a six-month introductory period.
The Goodwins transferred various credit card balances to Travelers Bank, including $12,218 from MBNA Corp., the court document states.
According to attorney Richard Freese, Travelers raised the interest rate on one of the balance transfers before the six-month period was over and priced another transfer at 15.4% immediately.
"I don't think it was a systematic error," said Mr. Freese, of Langston, Frazer, Sweet & Freese in Birmingham, Ala. "This is something I can't explain." He said he has seen other cases in which issuers "go over the top and make promises and don't keep them."
The lawsuit says the Goodwins "accepted the offer by transferring $33,767.19 worth of debt to Travelers in accordance with its instructions."
"Thousands of other class members responded in the same manner," adds the suit, for which class-action status has been requested. The suit seeks damages and a cut in interest rates.
Maria Mendler, a spokeswoman for Citigroup, Travelers' parent company, said the complaint is under investigation. She said the bank is required to file a response by the second week of May.
Most of Mr. Freese's cases are class actions against consumer finance companies. He said there has been an increase lately in filings against credit card issuers. "It may just be the result of aggressive solicitations by credit card companies as they go after balance transfers," he said.
Mr. Freese is also representing three plaintiffs in a class-action petition filed against First USA in 1997 in Dallas.
The Wilmington, Del.-based issuer is said to have complied with its promised introductory rate of 6.5% and go-to rate of 15.99%. But afterward, the accounts were suddenly repriced to a floating interest rate now in excess of 22%, the case states.
Mr. Freese said First USA has denied any wrongdoing. Two similar lawsuits were filed against First USA in Washington and Oregon, he said.
A First USA spokesman declined to comment but said litigation involving other high-profile issuers seems "more closely related to attorneys looking for business than related to credit cards."
Nancy Wilsker, a banking attorney at Brown, Rudnick, Freed & Gesmer in Boston, said most interest rate complaints come from consumers' misunderstanding of credit agreements.
"I have seen frequently that they do get the 6.9% (balance transfer rate) for six months, but then are surprised that the 15% applies to that balance as well," Ms. Wilsker said.
But consumer advocates said credit card issuers have had too much control over pricing and can alter interest rates on a whim, with little notification to cardholders.
"Not surprisingly, many customers are angry about what they see as arbitrary, poorly disclosed price hikes," said Stephen Brobeck, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America in Washington. "The litigation simply reflects the lack of consumer control over pricing and the failure of many issuers to adequately disclose, let alone justify, those increases."
One consumer group went so far as to file a suit itself.
The Washington-based Trial Lawyers for Public Justice filed against Chevy Chase Bank in February in Baltimore Circuit Court. The group, also seeking class-action status, accused Chevy Chase of breaking its contract with "hundreds of thousands of cardholders" by repricing accounts over a promised cap of 24%.
The dispute came after the thrift moved its home office from Maryland- which has an interest rate limit-to Virginia, which does not. Chevy Chase sold its credit card portfolio to First USA last September, and First USA is named as a co-defendant.
Sarah Posner, staff attorney at Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, said it expects a response in the next two weeks. "A lot of the practices that people are suing over are relatively new and the result of the companies raising interest rates under circumstances that they're not supposed to," Ms. Posner said.
She said cases against card issuers will proliferate as more consumers hear that people are taking such problems to court.
Ms. Wilsker, who sometimes reviews the legality of marketing claims for financial services companies, said there could be a wave of class actions if the lawsuits are successful in the early stages.
"Each time there has been a flavor of the month, the industry or Congress ultimately resolves the issue and that flavor of the month ceases to be appealing," she said.
Last month Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., introduced legislation that calls for clearer and more conspicuous disclosures of introductory interest rates. The proposal would give cardholders who are notified about an interest rate increase a grace period in which to pay their bills and cancel their accounts under the previous terms.
"Many of the issues from the lawsuits are addressed in our legislation," said Cathie Levine, spokeswoman for Sen. Schumer. "If it can pass, it can prevent consumers from being misled in the future."
Rep. John LaFalce, D-N.Y., introduced a similar measure in the House.
In one win for cardholders, Advanta Corp. agreed in December to pay as much as $11.65 million to settle lawsuits alleging illegal rate increases on accounts generated from a balance-transfer offer of 10.9%.
More than 80,000 customers received $7.25 million in refunds from past interest payments, and $4.4 million of interest was removed from current accounts.