Credit card issuers give best customers a break


Those responsible souls who pay their credit card bills on time month after month have long complained that banks charge them high interest rates to pay for the lapses of less creditworthy customers.

Now, there are some signs of relief.

A few large credit card issuers -- most notably American Express -- have started programs that let longtime customers who use their plastic regularly and pay promptly enjoy significantly lower rates than the average customer. And the people who track credit card rates say that it might just be the beginning.

"Is it a trend? I think so," said Robert B. McKinley, president of RAM Research Corp. in Frederick, which publishes a rate-tracking newsletter called CardTrak.

The trend -- if in fact it is one -- got its biggest push Feb. 5 when American Express announced a three-track variable-rate plan for its Optima bank card.

Under the plan, people who have had an Optima card for a year and make at least $1,000 in purchases can qualify for a rate of 6 points over the prime, or 12.5 percent at today's rate, if they've had no late payments.

New members and cardholders who fall short of the tenure requirement will pay 14.75 percent based on the current prime rate. But members whose accounts have fallen from grace during the past 12 months will pay 18.75 percent. The weighted national average for all cards in February is 18.66 percent, according to CardTrak.

The catch? Optima is marketed only to American Express cardholders, who pay an annual fee of $55 for the basic green card. Optima carries an annual fee of $15 to holders of green and gold cards but is free to those with platinum cards.

Gail Wasserman, a spokeswoman for American Express, said the company expects the tiered rate program, which takes effect June 1, to benefit the company by encouraging prompt payments and stimulating use of the cards.

The Optima move brought praise from Gerri Detweiler, director of Bankcard Holders of Amercia, a nonprofit consumer education group.

"We're extremely pleased with this," she said, adding that for a long time "banks have expected their best customers to subsidize riskier customers."

First Chicago Corp., the parent of First National Bank of Chicago, offers a rate of 13.4 percent, or 6.9 points above prime, to current customers with "the most impeccable credit history," said spokeswoman Lisabeth Weiner.

But that lower rate is not openly marketed, and the criteria for qualifying are considered "proprietary" information, she said.

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