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Paying with a Credit Card?
Up to a 4% Surcharge Coming

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Starting January 27, 2013

Everything you buy could potentially cost more starting this Sunday (1/27) when merchants will be legally allowed to add up to a 4 percent surcharge to every purchase made with a credit card.

Historically, merchants have been prohibited from imposing a surcharge when a customer uses a credit card because of a ban on the practice contained in contracts that banks and credit card companies have with sellers. That all changed last November when a federal judge preliminarily approved a settlement in an antitrust class action case brought by retailers against Visa, MasterCard, and a number of big banks. Part of the settlement, eliminating that ban on surcharges, goes into effect on January 27, 2013.

While widespread adoption of a credit card surcharge is not expected in the short-run, consumer advocates worry that over time they will become commonplace, and that surcharge abuses that developed in other countries will be replicated here.

"This outrageous, new fee should make every shopper think twice before plunking down a credit card," said Edgar Dworsky, founder of ConsumerWorld.org. "If a national sales tax of 2, 3, or 4 percent were being proposed, everyone would be up in arms. Yet, nearly the equivalent of that - an up to 4 percent credit card surcharge pushed for by retailers - has flown under the radar with seemingly little scrutiny, criticism, or concern for consumers' pocketbooks.

Under the new rules:

  • Sellers will only be allowed to surcharge customers for the actual costs of processing credit card transactions (typically 1.5 to 3 percent) or 4 percent, whichever is less.

  • Complicated rules allow retailers to choose the cards to which a surcharge will apply. However, American Express says while its agreements allow surcharges, a clever provision in them will likely mean that no surcharges can be applied to AMEX cards.

  • Debit cards and prepaid cards will not be subject to a surcharge.

  • Brick and mortar retailers will have to post a notice at the store's entrance advising customers that a surcharge applies on purchases made with a credit card. However, only at the point of sale must there be a disclosure of the exact percentage. In addition, sales receipts will have to itemize the exact amount of the surcharge.

    surcharge notice

  • Online sellers only have to disclose that a surcharge will be imposed on the page of the website where credit cards are first mentioned. In a typical online transaction, however, selecting the form of payment is usually the final step before completing the transaction. Consumer advocates believe this late a disclosure will turn off shoppers who may feel they were hoodwinked into almost completing the buying process before being advised that a credit card surcharge applies.

  • Stores must continue to abide by state laws that prohibit or restrict credit card surcharges in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Oklahoma and Texas.

    Consumer World has many concerns as the U.S. enters the era of credit card surcharging:

  • Having to pay 2 to 3 percent more for every item charged to a credit card will be a financial burden for many families in these tough economic times. Credit card issuers are said to collect an estimated $25 billion in credit card acceptance fees from merchants annually. If that cost is passed onto consumers, it could well put a drag on the national economy.

  • Prices of goods today already have built into them the seller's cost of providing credit. Most sellers are not likely to drop prices by that embedded 2 or 3 percent. As a result, consumers who pay with a credit card will be charged twice for that privilege: once because the price already includes the seller's credit costs, and again because they will have to pay another 2 or 3 percent.

  • Surcharging in the U.S. will probably follow the same unsettling pattern it did when first introduced in the UK and in Australia. Surcharging credit card use began in 2003 in Australia. At first, very few merchants charged extra fees. Then a few like some airlines and some hotels added surcharges. Next came taxis and some utilities. Then more conventional retailers like supermarkets and department stores followed suit.

    Today, approximately one-third of sellers in Australia charge extra when a customer uses a credit card. And unfortunately for consumers there, many sellers have turned the surcharge into a profit center, charging more than their actual cost of accepting credit cards - as high as 10 percent, according to some reports. As result, the federal government there had to impose a limit on surcharges that will go into effect in March. The UK, which experienced a similar growth pattern and subsequent abuse, will be imposing restrictions in 2013.

  • Shoppers who switch to a debit card or cash will be giving up important federal protections such as the right to chargeback purchases that are defective or never received. And those eschewing premium credit cards will lose valuable benefits such as double the manufacturer's warranty, collision damage waiver on car rentals, and points/miles/cashback.

  • There are no disclosure requirements in the settlement agreement related to advertising. Shoppers thus may be lured to a retailer because of a price in an ad, only to learn once in the store that they really have to pay more than they expected.

    "Any seller that implements a surcharge is doing so at its own peril," warns Dworsky. "We are advising consumers to simply shop elsewhere to avoid having to pay any extra fees."

    Dworsky hopes that more states will pass legislation to ban credit card surcharges, and that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau will consider regulations to head off possible abuse.

    ----> Add your comments about credit card surcharges, or read others.

    ========================================================

    Consumer World®, launched in 1995, is a public service, non-commercial consumer resource guide with over 2000 links to everything "consumer" on the Internet. Edgar Dworsky, an avid bargain hunter, is the founder of Consumer World, editor of MousePrint.org – an educational site devoted to exposing the fine print loopholes in advertising, and a former Assistant Attorney General in the Consumer Protection Division of the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office.



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