WASHINGTON — The Justice Department has begun an antitrust investigation of pricing practices in the nation's $500-billion credit card industry.
"The antitrust division is looking into possible anti-competitive practices that may have reduced competition in certain aspects of the credit card industry," division spokeswoman Gina Talamona said.
The industry, led by Visa and MasterCard, has doubled in size in the last six years as consumer borrowing has increased. At the end of last year, there were 288 million credit cards in the United States alone, with balances totaling about $197 billion.
The American Bankers Assn. received a Justice Department civil investigative demand, the civil equivalent of a subpoena, in early November.
Visa said it received a request for information from the department in June, though it didn't get a subpoena.
"The Justice Department has requested information from scores of companies in dozens of industries," Visa spokesman David Brancoli said. "We have absolutely no reason to believe price fixing is the subject of this inquiry."
Both MasterCard and Dean Witter, Discover & Co., which issues the Discover credit card, declined to comment.
People familiar with the probe said the investigation is preliminary. If the government finds what it believes to be violations of the law, it could bring a civil suit or criminal prosecution. Civil cases are more common and most cases are settled.
The investigation may not focus on issuers of credit cards such as banking companies or corporations. The Justice Department declined to provide specifics of the probe.
The investigation comes as card use is surging this holiday shopping season. Visa, with more than 368 million cards in use, said Monday that shoppers in the United States rang up more than $11 billion in Visa card purchases from Nov. 25 through Dec. 10, an increase of 23% from the same period a year ago.