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Susan Walsh/AP
Neil M. Barofsky, Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP),
and Elizabeth Warren, chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel.

Rescued Banks Not Passing the Bailout to Customers

April 15, 2009 09:00 AM
by Cara McDonough
Banks that accepted bailout money have hiked fees on credit cards, loans and other items. What can customers do to protect themselves?

Banks Eager to Pay Back Loans

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The situation is complicated on many levels. U.S. banks that received bailout money have been attacked for raising interest rates and other customer charges. In their defense, banks say that they are working to restore their businesses to profitability, and to pay off the loans as soon as possible.

More than 400 banks took money under the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). Elizabeth Warren, chairwoman of the Congressional Oversight Panel that will monitor the use of the money, said recently that she plans to issue a report on the “potentially inappropriate lending practices” of banks that received TARP money. She said customers could be “paying twice” to bail out the banks.

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Customers are facing steep increases in rates; average credit card interest rates have risen to 12.4 percent. Bank of America told some customers last week that their credit card rates would double, while Citigroup has introduced short-term loans with interest rates as high as 30 percent.

Meanwhile bank officials are speaking out with their own complaints about the current situation under TARP.

“It's not something we signed up for,” Ken Lewis, CEO of Bank of America, told The Charlotte Observer, in regard to TARP. The Treasury, according to the story, "basically ordered” nine of the country’s biggest banks to take part in the program.

Banks are also expressing dismay at the increased and ever-changing rules the government is imposing on them. New regulations, for instance, include caps on executive pay and more disclosure on how the loan money is being spent.

The institutions have been reluctant to share such details from the start. In December, Bank of New York-Mellon spokesperson Kevin Heine told The Associated Press, “I just would prefer if you wouldn’t say that we’re not going to discuss those details,” when questioned about how the federal funds would be used.

Warren spoke out against any secrecy on the part of the banks then, too: “It is entirely appropriate for the American people to know how their taxpayer dollars are being spent in private industry,” she said.

Although bank customers may feel overwhelmed and powerless by this current turn of events, there are some practical steps people can take to protect themselves, writes ABC News consumer correspondent Elisabeth Leamy.

For example, if a customer receives a notice from a bank saying it is raising its credit card rates, that person can call the customer service number and opt out. The catch is that doing so means a customer may not be able to use the card to make new purchases. Leamy offers more helpful advice on transferring balances and applying for new credit cards.

Background: All about TARP

After TARP was passed by Congress in October, the Treasury Department allocated $250 billion of the $700 billion to buy up shares of troubled banks.

Politicians argued about how to spend other portions of the money. Some members of Congress pushed to spend some of the remaining $60 billion in President Bush’s request to help keep the Big Three U.S. carmakers afloat.

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson was hesitant about allocating funds to carmakers, and then announced that the remaining money would go toward freeing up the consumer credit market. “Illiquidity in this sector is raising the cost and reducing the availability of car loans, student loans and credit cards,” he said in November.

Reference: Taking charge of credit

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