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Business credit cards have different rules

By Eileen AJ Connelly
Associated Press / May 18, 2011

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NEW YORK — The sudden interest-rate hikes, high fees, and steep penalties that last year’s credit card regulations were designed to eliminate are still lurking in one segment of the credit card market: cards designated for businesses.

As a result, consumers who don’t carefully read the fine print on card applications may learn the hard way that when it comes to such practices, “It’s just business, nothing personal.’’

The credit card law that took effect a year ago has been deemed successful at making personal credit easier to understand, while saving consumers millions in interest charges, late payment penalties, and over-the-limit fees. But the law that restricts the way banks can change rates or charge fees doesn’t apply to cards labeled for business or commercial use.

A study to be released today by the Pew Charitable Trust’s Safe Credit Card Project says that consumers are still vulnerable to these practices, because more than 10 million offers for business cards are sent to US households each month.

Pew examined business card offers from the nation’s 12 largest credit card issuers, and found that many of the practices are still common. Only Bank of America, for example, has eliminated penalty interest rate increases — the kind of automatic rate hike that comes as a result of a late payment. And BofA and Capital One now use payment policies for business cards that mimic those required for consumers and apply payments to the portion of a balance with the highest rate first.

Interest rate hikes on existing balances, barred under the consumer regulations, are a big concern. For someone carrying a high balance, it could mean a difference of thousands of dollars by the time the balance is paid off if they carry a business card rather than a personal card.

Pew wants policy makers to require that the credit card restrictions apply whenever an individual is personally liable for the balance on a card. Short of that measure, applications should at least make it clear whether consumer credit card regulations apply to it, said Nick Bourke, director of the Safe Credit Cards Project.

The concern is especially high because so many business card applications are sent to homes. That’s largely because many small businesses are operated out of residences.