Calculate your eternal indebtedness to the credit card industry

Here’s a good game for a rainy Sunday.

Several credit card companies have launched a new Web site designed to help struggling card users manage their debts amid the economic downturn. The site includes tips to avoid penalties and links to access counseling services. But the fan favorite has to be an interactive tool allowing consumers to calculate the minimum installment required to pay off balances within a given time frame. It’s worth a whirl.

For example, a customer wanting to pay off a card balance of $8,329 — the average credit card debt per U.S. household last year, according to The Nilson Report — at an interest rate of, say, 15 percent within five years would learn that the monthly payment would be $198. If the same customer could afford only $120 each month, she would learn that it would take 161 months to pay down the same balance, etc. It’s an instant lesson in precisely how long you’ll be tethered to that flat-screen purchase.

The Web site arrives as Congress is poised to pass legislation to protect consumers from some of the most commonly abusive tactics used by card companies, such as hiking interest rates on existing balances and advertising “fixed-for-life” rates that are anything but. The companies’ new PR campaign, it seems, is designed to lend a sense that the industry also has the interest of consumers at heart.

Funny, then, that these are the same companies that have fought to water down the consumer protections currently flying through Congress. Funny, too, that they’re also the same companies that lobbied successfully to delay the implementation of those congressional reforms for at least nine months. Now they’ve launched a tool to “educate customers struggling to make their credit card payments” after they just fought to preserve the right to hike rates on those same customers retroactively?

In light of those efforts, their shiny new Web tool suddenly takes on a duller hue.

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Mike Lillis

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