CFPB Cracks Down on Lies in Credit Card Marketing

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Daniel Acker / Bloomberg / Getty Images

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has the credit card industry in its crosshairs, and it’s making banks who flout the law pay up.

Yesterday, the CFPB along with other federal regulators fined American Express $112.5 million for a laundry list of illegal credit card practices that went on from 2003 up to this year, the third such punishment meted out by the CFPB since July. American Express, which did not admit wrongdoing, has to reimburse around 250,000 customers to the tune of $85 million. This comes on the heels of a similar action last week against Discover, which was ordered to refund customers $200 million and fined an additional $14 million by the CFPB and FDIC. The CFPB says American Express led “Blue Sky” customers to believe they would get a $300 sign-up bonus, but they never got their rewards. In addition, some cardholders were slapped with late fees prohibited by the CARD Act, and others were tricked into paying off old debts under the guise of improving their credit score. AmEx also failed to report disputes to credit bureaus and discriminated against customers who were older than 35, the CFPB charges.

The new regulatory body has been on quite a run of activity against credit card companies that break the rules, with a particular focus on deceptive marketing practices. In the case of Discover, telemarketers didn’t tell customers the truth about expensive “add on” products like payment protection, credit score tracking, identity theft protection, and “wallet protection.”

(MORE: CFPB Shows Its Teeth: Capital One Fined $210 Million For Deceptive Marketing)

Discover reps made people think they were just evaluating these products when, in reality, they were being charged for them already. They referred to the products as “benefits” and implied that they were free offerings, didn’t tell customers about eligibility requirements, and sometimes just went ahead and signed them up without the cardholder’s knowledge or consent.

The Discover action mirrors the CFPB’s very first enforcement action against Capital One back in July. Capital One was required to reimburse customers $140 million and pay another $25 million fine for using deceptive marketing practices to sell ancillary products and services.

(MORE: Make Sure You’re Not Being Charged This Credit Card Fee)

Banking analysts observe that credit card companies are feeling the heat and backing away from some of these practices and products, particularly add-ons like payment protection and credit monitoring. In August, the Wall Street Journal reported that Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, and Citigroup were all phasing out or scaling back payment protection. Bloomberg Businessweek says, “American Express also is cooperating with regulators amid an ‘industrywide review’ of the products.”

We’ve explained why payment protection in particular is a product to stay away from here. In a nutshell, these plan are expensive but they don’t provide much in the way of coverage — and that’s if you even qualify, given the number of conditions and caveats tucked into the fine print. As Birny Birnbaum, a former insurance regulator who is now executive director of the Center for Economic Justice, told Businessweek: “It’s not hard to see why you have to be deceptive to even be able to sell it.”