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Consumers Need To Cut To the Chase On Credit Card Transparency

By Brian O’Connell| 08/07/15 – 11:42 AM EDT

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — It’s back-to-school shopping season, the second busiest consumer shopping experience on the annual calendar (behind the Thanksgiving to Christmas time-frame), as millions of moms and dads will be pulling out the plastic to pay for all those pens, notebooks, clothes and computers.

When they do, parents will be doing themselves a big favor by knowing exactly what they’re getting from the credit card they use to pay for back-to-school supplies.

Here’s the rub. Cardhub.com, a credit card specialty site, says that some cards are more transparent than others on the fees, rates and fine print that comes part and parcel with any card deal.

In the firm’s 6th annual Credit Card Application Study, which tracks how open card companies are with their customers, Cardhub.com rates the best and worst card providers in terms of transparency. Some takeaways from the study earn a closer look from card consumers:

- Capital One, State Employees Credit Union and Boeing Employees Credit Union have the clearest overall credit card applications.

- Barclaycard U.S. and Navy Federal Credit Union have the least clear credit card applications.

- Credit unions lag slightly behind big banks when it comes to overall website transparency, with the biggest deficiency being in terms of how rewards earning and redemption rates are characterized.

- The areas in which the most ambiguity remains – for big banks and credit unions alike – include the disclosure of balance transfer fees and rewards redemption value.

- Transparency is now at the highest point since Cardhub began conducting this study in 2010 – having increased 15% in that time.

Card consumers who don’t pay attention to their credit card company’s transparency efforts, bad or good, and who don’t pay close attention to the fine print, are taking a big risk.

“The vast majority of consumers do not realize that the plastic card they pull from their wallet and use for goods and services creates a unique and varying cost for every company,” says Joseph Bizzarro, CEO at Vizant, a payments services and advisory firm. “Every credit, debit or prepaid card incurs a whole host of fees and costs, and while the merchant may pay these costs, it is the consumer that ultimately pays for it.”

For example, a rewards credit card costs much more for the merchant to accept than your debit card or ordinary everyday credit card. “It’s really an ecosystem of card brands, card issuing banks and card processors that is fraught with inefficiencies and onerous rates, costs and fees, and to say it is anti-competitive would be an understatement,” says Bizzarro.

The card providers that do the best job of transparency are the ones who promote user-friendly contract language, and who offer the best card usage options.

“Discover makes things really easy to read and is upfront about what you’ll be paying,” says Mark Jackson, a credit card analyst at Bradsdeals.com. “They’re really good with student credit cards. They also offer the ability to ‘freeze’ the use of your card if you’ve temporarily lost it, or if you don’t want to use it. Discover also offers you free FICO credit score reporting, and give you a chance to not pay any fees if you miss a payment the first time.”

Sean McQuay, credit card associate at the San Francisco-based money and finance site NerdWallet, goes a different route with his favorite card. “If I had to pick one card that stands out from the pack in terms of transparency, I’d have to recommend the Capital One Secured Card,” McQuay says. “For a card designed to introduce people to credit cards and help them build up their credit, it is highly transparent and keeps costs low.”

Past that, McQuay has a low opinion of credit card companies’ transparency levels.

“Transparency is so important,” he says. “Not all points are created equal — yet issuers do very little to help consumers understand how their points compare in value to points from other card programs. Consider this, advertisements for rewards credit cards always talk about how many points you’ll earn with your purchases — but do they ever mention how much those points are worth?”

If McQuay had one area where card companies could really improve, it’s on balance transfer cards. “Consumers deserve more transparency on balance transfer offers, especially the window of the offer and how many transfers can be made,” he adds. “Balance transfers are confusing to begin with, so the specific terms of limited time offers can be pretty hard to follow.”

In the short term, there are plenty of other areas where card providers could upgrade the consumer experience, other experts say. “Issuers could do a better job of communicating consumer behaviors directly toward implications on rates and fees in marketing materials,” says Mark Flamme, partner and financial industry services expert for PwC Strategy& in Chicago. “Providers could also create mobile alerts around pending payments, potential fee and rate implication reminders related to late or missed payments.”

Consumers have a right to full transparency and openness from their credit card companies. If they don’t like what they see — or don’t see — in credit card terms and conditions, consumers may want to move toward the growing number of card carriers who are making transparency a big priority for their customers.