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Chase cardholders see payment hike as a raw deal

Monthly minimum payments will more than double in August. Some customers affected by the new policy believe the company is indulging in a little bait-and-switch.

July 01, 2009|DAVID LAZARUS

Van Nuys resident Richard Levinson figured he was getting a pretty sweet deal when JPMorgan Chase & Co. offered to charge an average 4.5% in interest if he'd transfer his outstanding credit card debt to the bank.

Levinson, 54, a musician, planned to use the Chase account as a rainy-day fund that would cost relatively little to maintain.

"I work in an industry where I can never be sure of my income," he told me. "This provided me with cash at an interest rate that was guaranteed for the life of the loan."

Now Levinson finds himself among about 1 million Chase cardholders who have been notified that their monthly minimum payment will more than double in August to 5% from 2%.

"They're essentially calling these loans," he said. "They either want their money back or they want to force people to default so they can charge rates closer to 30%."

Higher minimum payments aren't necessarily a bad thing. For many consumers, credit card balances turn into an endless cycle of debt that they're never able to escape. Paying more each month can fix that.

But what Levinson and numerous other cardholders affected by the new policy believe is that Chase is indulging in a little bait-and-switch.

They say Chase finds itself saddled with a lending program that isn't raking in as much cash as the bank desires during these recessionary times, and is thus trying to put an end to the low-interest loans by making conditions tougher for customers.

Needless to say, that's not how Chase sees it.

Stephanie Jacobson, a Chase spokeswoman, said most cardholders who received "promotional low-rate financing" over the last five years have paid off their loans.

"However, there have been a small percentage of customers that have not made as much progress in paying down these loans," she said. "Our desire is to have these loans repaid in a reasonable period of time."

Jacobson acknowledged that many of the hundreds of thousands of cardholders who received notice of the higher minimums participated in the same balance-transfer program that attracted Levinson.

But she said Chase isn't reneging on its deal -- it's not raising interest rates.

"We're just increasing the minimum payment due," Jacobson said.

She declined to comment on the timing of the move or complaints from cardholders that the higher minimum in effect makes the loans too costly to keep.

For people like Levinson, who entered into what they believed was a "lifetime" arrangement with their eyes open and with a clear plan to remain financially prudent, the higher minimum represents a violation of the spirit if not the letter of the deal.

For others, it's a turning of the screws at a time when many people can't afford to part with more cash.

Burbank resident Shant Istamboulian, 29, said his mother recently received notice from Chase that her monthly minimum would rise to about $365 from $149.

"She's barely making ends meet," he said. "She charges groceries on her credit card. She pays her insurance with her credit card. This higher minimum payment will kill her."

Chase is no stranger to angry customers. In January, the bank started charging cardholders a $10 monthly fee if they'd carried a balance for too long.

Chase agreed in March to stop levying the fee after New York's attorney general questioned the legality of the practice. Chase also said it would refund more than $4 million to cardholders.

It looks like the higher minimum payments will withstand legal scrutiny. As Jacobson correctly observed, they're not the same as a rate increase. Not exactly.

But Chase is clearly earning a reputation as the bank that practices tough love with customers and isn't shy about shaking them down for extra cash.

I asked Jacobson whether she was comfortable with that rep.

She declined to comment.

Unlisted numbers

Sunday's column on monthly fees for unlisted numbers generated plenty of outrage from telecom customers. But none were as steamed as people who received phone service from cable heavyweight Charter Communications.

They scoffed at the 99 cents charged by Time Warner Cable, the $1.25 charged by AT&T and the $1.75 charged by Verizon.

Charter, with about 100,000 phone customers in Southern California, charges a whopping $5 a month for what the company calls its private number service.

That's $60 a year to not have your name and number in a phone book that the company doesn't even publish. Like Time Warner Cable, Charter piggybacks on the likes of AT&T and Verizon for its directories.

Anita Lamont, a Charter spokeswoman, was unable to explain why her company's fee was so high. Nor could she say why the fee was charged monthly, even though a customer's preference could be registered with a few simple keystrokes.

"This is the way all phone companies do it," Lamont said.

I suspect I'm not the only one who thinks that's a pretty lame excuse.

--

David Lazarus' column runs Wednesdays and Sundays. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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