Credit Card Traps, And How To Avoid Them

by : David Berky

"0% interest* for the first six months, no annual fees**
and a low fixed*** rate of only 8.9%****!"

* Unless you count the deferred interest we will charge you
if you don't pay off the full balance transfer amount when
the promotional period ends.

** Except the ones we charge for "late payments****", going
over your balance, cash advances, balance transfers,
membership in "rewards" programs, etc., etc., etc.

*** Fixed for the first month, but after we may change it
without notice for: late payments, going over your balance,
changes in the prime rate, or just cause we want more of
your money.

**** Rate depends on your credit score. (Which we already
checked and intend to charge you 19.8% or we wouldn't bother
sending you this great***** offer.)

***** A payment may be late if we just don't get around to
processing it in time no matter when you actually mailed it
to us.

****** May not be great in all states.

Yes, folks, "the devil is in the details" and the truth is
in the fine print.

While this is obviously an exaggerated and fictitious
example I have seen most of these "weasel" clauses in the
100s of credit card offers I receive each year.

Some of these tricks and traps are practiced by local and
national merchants with their "store credit cards" and
"discount cards".

I have seen stores and even car dealerships make "no
interest for a year" type announcements and advertisements.
But when you actually read the contract (and who does that -
they count on you to not read the whole thing and you
probably won't understand it without your attorney) you may
find that instead of the regular payments you would expect
to start at the end of the no interest period, you are
required to pay the full purchase price.

If you want to make installment payments, you will be
required to pay the payment plus the interest (look for the
rate in the fine print) and you may also be required to pay
the interest that accrued during your "interest free"
period. Gotcha!

Or how about the "no annual fees" bit. Look out for the
contract to say "no annual fees FOR THE FIRST YEAR". Or
first two years or that a "membership" fee is required. How
that differs from an "annual fee" is beyond me.

Also watch out for the "no annual fees" for the use of the
card but "membership fee required" to participate the in
frequent flyer miles or cash back points program (which was
probably why you chose that card to begin with). Gotcha!

And how about the "fixed" rate? Read the fine print, it
will actually say "subject to change without notice". Is it
just me or do I misunderstand the meaning of the word

Also your "fixed" rate may be raised to the "maximum
allowable by state law" if you go over your credit limit
(including fees that may put you over your limit before you
even know it), make a late payment, miss a payment or do not
pay the full amount. Gotcha!

And then there is that low "teaser rate". Yes that's what
it is called in the industry and it is appropriately
descriptive. That rate is given out, they aren't lying
about that. But it is only given to the people who have 700
or above credit scores, minimal debt, and a high paying job.

The majority of the people who are sent the ad will not get
the lowest rate. But you won't know your rate until you
apply for the card. But by the time they tell you what rate
you will be at they have already signed you up and issued
your card.

They count on the fact that most people will just accept the
rate and go from there. Gotcha!

So how can you avoid these traps?

Rule #1, read ALL of the fine print. If you are not clear
on something ask someone else what they think it means. Ask
an attorney friend, CPA (certified public accountant),
financial planner, banker or other person in the financial
industry. Chances are they will have several questions
about the fine print, too.

Rule #2, don't apply for a card unless or until they tell
you what your actual rate will be. This is hard because
most of them are not set up to tell you. Generally you will
need to know your credit scores and have a copy of your
credit report handy.

Even then you are unlikely to find someone through their
telephone maze that will or can actually answer your
question. Try to find a card that gives you a confirmed
rate before you apply. A conscientious company will first
request a copy of your credit report from one of the credit
bureaus before quoting you a rate.

Look on for current rates offered by
various credit card companies and banks. Often smaller
banks and companies offer better deals and are not as strict
or hard to deal with. Check with your local banks also. At
least with a locally issued credit card "you know where they

Rule #3, always mail your payment at least 7 days before it
is due. Or try paying through the Internet. Many companies
now offer that payment method. It can also save you time
and stamps.

Rule #4, check your statement each month to be sure you are
still at the interest rate you signed up for. If your rate
has been increased, look for a late payment fee, or some
other reason for the increase. Call the company and ask
them why they increased your rate.

If your rate was unjustly increased (they processed the
payment late or credited it to your account late, but it was
not received late) then ask them to change your rate back to
what it should be.

Even if you did make a late payment, most companies will
reduce your rate after six months of on-time payments. But
if you don't ask, they will keep you at the higher rate as
long as they can.

In the credit card business it is definitely "caveat emptor"
or buyer beware!