Watch out for annual fees on more cards

Red dollar sign on a crack

You don't want to pay for the privilege of carrying a credit card if you can avoid it.

But 27% of the offers for new credit cards mailed out in the first three months of the year included an annual fee, up from 18% in the first quarter of 2008, according to Mail Monitor, a direct-mail tracking service.

The fees ranged from $24 to $72 a year and reflect what could be a new trend -- more cards charging more customers for the privilege of being in their wallets.

That's because lenders are looking for ways to cover losses from a growing number of defaults.

Americans had $939.6 billion in revolving credit card debt in March, and 6.5% of all accounts were delinquent, which means no payments had been made for at least 30 days.

Since only about 20% of all credit cards charge an annual fee, it's an obvious way for the banks to boost their revenue.

The banks also threatened to impose annual fees on more customers if Congress passed the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act this spring -- which it did.

The new law goes into effect in February and primarily protects cardholders who have been hit with big fees and higher interest rates because they were late with a payment.

The law forbids credit cards from imposing a penalty rate until customers are more than 60 days late with a payment and requires the card issuer to restore the previous, no-penalty rate once a customer has made six on-time payments.

Unfortunately, the law includes no restrictions on annual fees.

We expect the banks will start by including annual fees on many new cards, as we saw in the first quarter.

Then they'll try to impose them on existing accounts with significant balances. That's because customers with big balances are less likely to close their accounts.

If a credit card company tries to impose an annual fee on your account, that's a good time to take a long, hard look at what you're paying -- and getting -- for your money.

Our extensive database of credit card deals allows you to compare interest rates, fees and perks for hundreds of cards.

Can you do better?

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