The image of the lone young woman swimming offshore and then being pulled to her death by a killer shark in Jaws is burned into our collective brains. It is downright horrifying because it is unexpected yet possible. Saturday Night Live parodied the event brilliantly in their Land Shark skits and gave us all a good laugh at our fears. But there is a new shark, a loan shark, in the waters of America, or perhaps just an old shark that has grown a new set of even sharper teeth to replace the ones that were recently removed by Congress. That loan shark goes by very respectable names: Bank of America, CitiBank and others whose headquarters occupy lavish, shiny skyscrapers in the cities of our country.
In response to the financial sector meltdown of last year and the resulting credit crisis, Congress enacted new laws restricting the banks’ abilities to rip off the American consumers by uncalled for interest-rate increases and ridiculous and unfair fees. But the bank lobby—that’s right, they exist and are very real—swimming under the surface of Capitol Hill managed to put a delay into those laws “to help the poor innocent banks adjust to the new rules.” What they have done instead is take advantage of the delay to jack up interest rates to a baseline that they can move up from after the new rules go into effect and replace the old unfair fees with some NEW UNFAIR fees.
And where, oh where, and when did the American people find out about this chicanery? The first I heard of it was in a report on the Today show on the day the new fees went into effect. Thanks, big network news organizations, for the heads up before the fact. That’s what I call “great journalism.” The other way that folks found out that they were waking up in a new world this week was the insertion of those little flier-like pages that flutter out of the envelope when you get your credit card bill. You know, the ones with the teeny, tiny print that you must read over, perhaps several times, to make any sense of.
My experience was jolting. On Monday afternoon one of those nondescript envelopes showed up in my mailbox bearing a return address from somewhere I didn’t know anybody and containing a letter without any letterhead whatsoever along with one of those little fliers. A reading of the letter indicated that CitiBank was raising the interest rate on my account with them to 29.99%. I panicked because I don’t have a credit card or account of any kind that I know of with CitiBank. Due to the snappy songs of those CreditReport.Com guys, my first thought was that someone had stolen my identity and opened up an account with CitiBank in my name. OMG! WTF? How could this happen? Mrs. Jack and I have been living a credit-free existence for some time now, and we like it like that. It is our way of surviving these tough times on a fixed income. We pay cash for everything, and if we don’t have the cash, we don’t put the merchandise in the cart. I’m sure this drives them crazy at Wal-Mart.
But I had forgotten something. Back at the time when we went credit free, I kept some gasoline credit cards for emergencies. You know, like a hurricane at the end of the month when the budget is in its shutdown mode. We hadn’t used them for some time, so I had forgotten about them. Mrs. Jack found the offending card and talked me down, but I was not appeased and still resented two things about the incident. Number one, I had no idea CitiBank was “managing” my account with the oil company; and, number two, I was still in disbelief about the news account I had heard that morning.
It seems that CitiBank’s new unfair fee is on those who do not keep a balance of at least $2400 on their cards. Now, the reporter was quite specific about the fact that this did not mean that your credit card account had to reach $2400 per month; instead, you must rollover a balance of at least $2400 each month to avoid this fee, which was a whopping $150 per month. Ouch! If you pay off your card or pay down your card or fail to charge enough to reach that level, you will be charged $150. Is it just me, or is this outrageous? And CitiBank was not alone in announcing new “inactivity fees.” Bank of America had one, too, charging you a fee every month that you choose not to use your credit card with them. In other words, the big boys in the banking world are saying to the American People, “F**k you very much for bailing us out. Now, you pay yourselves back so we don’t have to.”
Last evening and this morning, there were reports from two credit card holders—one a bank CEO from a smaller bank—who received word that their credit card interest rates were going up into the 30- to 40-percent range. Both men were solid citizens who paid their bills on time and had done nothing “bad” to deserve this treatment from their credit card issuers. I’m sorry, 30- to 40-percent interest, to me, is pure usury, and these lenders qualify as loan sharks in my book.
So, what do we do to kill these loan sharks in the muddy water where they swim and prey on us? First, get on the web or phone and contact your congressional delegation and express your outrage and your desire that they stop this in its tracks. Second, and this is what I did, pick that fluttering flier up off the floor and call the offending bank at the telephone number given and cancel that card right now! The nice person on the other end of the phone is just an employee of the loan shark, so do not yell at her/him. Just matter of factly state that you will not accept the new unfair “terms and conditions” that they are offering you. The young lady that I talked to reminded me that if I cancelled my card, it would be “permanent.” I told her that was all right; I tell you I should hope so! They can stuff it along with my mythical “permanent record,” wherever that is.
In fairness to the great big oil company that has turned me over to the loan sharks at CitiBank, if I paid off my balance every month as I always have, I would not be affected by the NEW UNFAIR interest rate. But, you know, to me it is all part and parcel of my new “Hitting Back Campaign.” And I don’t want to be surprised some day when I open a statement from my long unused oil company credit card to find that I, indeed, do have an emergency on my hands because I didn’t use it and have now incurred an unexpected inactivity fee. I know they are required to send me notice, but I know that things get lost in the mail. I once had a credit card where the statements mysteriously showed up in the mail after the due date. I cancelled that card the second time it happened and later saw a TV news report about credit card companies doing this deliberately to get late fees and more interest from consumers. Go figure!
As I watched the spectacle last summer of the right-wing crazies pouring crocodile tears down their faces, wanting their country back, I didn’t realize that by now, I, too, would want my country back. That country is the one that I thought existed before the Republicans dismantled the safeguards on the banking and finance industries to protect us from them. The country I would like back is the one I was raised in, where we considered banks a trusted place to keep our money and get fair and honest loans when necessary. That world is long gone, and the very politicians that those crybaby conservatives put in charge were the ones that banished it to history.
It is time to hit back! My act of hitting back was canceling the offending credit-card account and then gleefully taking a pair of scissors to the offending plastic and carefully distributing it to the various waste baskets around the house, because they get emptied at different times.
Over the past decades we have all come to feel a very real need for credit cards. You have to have them to rent a car, check into a nice hotel, and lots of other things. They are convenient but deadly accessories to modern American life. In the swipe of a card, we can overextend our finances and invite a world of hurt down upon ourselves. We can use them unwisely on the internet and expose ourselves to theft. And as the holidays approach, we can use them to give us a mammoth headache next January when the broken toys are strewn upon the floor and the memories of warm pumpkin pie and turkey are long gone.
I know that for many, credit cards are a necessity, and for those I say, get on that phone or on the internet and shop around until you find a better deal for your credit needs. Credit unions are a good place to start. You may not get the same credit line that you had before, but maybe it is time to rethink that anyway. That’s your decision to make. But it is way past time for us as consumers to stand up to those who take advantage of us, because our politicians seem to be too entangled with the “money lenders” to put up much resistance.
So, to paraphrase an old joke: How do you kill a charging loan shark? Take away its plastic!
I am Jack. I am who I am, and I’m HITTING BACK!
With Liberty and Justice for All!