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Beware of Deceptive Credit-Card Fees

“Sum tyms bitin, sum tyms bit.”

On my desk there is a paperweight containing this bit of philosophy from the novel Riddley Walker. In pidgin English that author Russell Hoban imagines would devolve in the millennia following a nuclear holocaust, Riddley states a truism he had learned from watching dogs fight.

I recently got bit, and it hurt.

It not only hurt, but it made me mad, and reminded me of how many people have been bitten much more severely and with longer-term damage–bitten by predatory lending institutions that masquerade as a consumer’s friend but care only for making money.

Perhaps the big financiers are trying to make up for some of the billions they lost through the spate of bad loans that crippled the real estate market, led to record foreclosures and contributed significantly to a global economic tailspin.

Chase Bank, the financial company behind a multitude of differently branded credit cards, made me an offer I didn’t refuse. It’s embarrassing to admit this, but I bit on a “zero percent” teaser rate, and I got bit in return.

We’ve been doing lots of overdue maintenance and repair work on our 20-year-old home this summer, and it added up to several thousand dollars. I could have taken money from savings to pay for it, but when a “special offer” arrived from an Amazon.com credit card I never use, I decided to take advantage of it for six months of no interest payments.

I’m usually very careful about such things and rarely get burned, though I know the credit card companies use such teaser rates because they know most people won’t pay the balance before the typically exorbitant interest rate kicks in. I make notes, pay the balance on time and generally avoid the downside.

When my first bill arrived, however, I discovered that Chase had added a full $285 in “transaction fees” to the amount borrowed–effectively charging a high rate of interest in advance and making the “zero percent” claim an absolute sham, nothing more than a bold-faced lie in a 40-point font.

After scouring the original offer, I eventually found a disclosure about the transaction fee, printed in such tiny type that it was barely readable.

I called the company to complain and asked for the deceptive fees to be removed, but got no satisfaction beyond asking one poor customer representative to inform his employer that Chase Bank would get no more business from me.

While I can afford to pay the ridiculous fee and clear the account before the six months is up, I was reminded that this is precisely how unscrupulous financial institutions feed on our consumerist tendencies, enticing many less fortunate people into taking out loans they cannot afford to pay, contributing to mountains of debt that can become overwhelming.

I confess my lapse in judgment in the hope that others might be reminded to scrutinize any tempting “special offers” with great care, even if it takes a magnifying glass to do so.

If we don’t bite, we won’t get bit.

Tony Cartledge is associate professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School and a contributing editor to Baptists Today.