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Charlene Crowell
Published: 23 February 2023

crowell charlene 17 introAmid still-rising interest rates, most families remain financially challenged to make household needs fit into their budgets. For Black Americans whose wealth amounts to 25 cents for every $1 of white family wealth, according to the St. Louis Federal Reserve, the challenge is especially daunting.  

So, it is particularly encouraging to Blacks, and others of modest means for a sitting president to speak to the average person’s concerns in the annual State of the Union Address.  

Junk fees

“Junk fees may not matter to the very wealthy, but they matter to most folks in homes like the one I grew up in,” said President Joe Biden on February 7. “They add up to hundreds of dollars a month…I know how unfair it feels when a company overcharges you and gets away with it.”  

“Not anymore.”  

Junk fees are hidden and unexpected charges that are often not included in the initial or listed price of a transaction but are added on at the time of the payment.   

Many consumers are unaware of how junk fees bloat the costs of a variety of goods and services. As a result, the actual costs consumers pay are much larger than expected or advertised. Prepaid card fees, convenience fees, overdraft fees, and late fees are among the myriad of add-on charges that consumers often learn about after or during transactions.  

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has a section of its website dedicated to explaining the varying types of junk fees and their respective charges. To learn more about this growing consumer issue, visit  https://www.consumerfinance.gov/rules-policy/junk-fees/.  

Proposed changes

Further, as the consumer’s financial cop-on-the beat, the CFPB has begun the rulemaking process to rein in the financial harms caused by a myriad of fees affecting at least 85 percent of consumers, according to a 2019 survey by Consumer Reports.   

The proposed CFPB rule change would make exorbitant late fees illegal. Based on the agency’s estimates, the proposal could reduce credit card late fees by as much as $9 billion per year -- even though no additional collection costs are incurred.  

“In markets across the economy, junk fees have unfortunately become the norm,” noted Rohit Chopra, CFPB Director in announcing the proposed rule. “These junk fees aren’t subject to the normal forces of competition. They’re often charged for so-called services that a consumer never wanted and are set at levels far beyond the true cost. Junk fees inflate prices and chip away at monthly budgets by obscuring part of the price from comparison shopping, making it difficult for Americans to shop around.”  

“When we asked people to submit their comments on and experiences with junk fees, we were inundated with stories from thousands of individuals about being charged fees for things that weren’t in their control, like in the case of surprise overdraft fees,” continued Chopra. “Many Americans believe these fees are just plain wrong.” 

The proposed rulemaking is based on earlier CFPB research released last year that found that in only one year, 2020, credit card companies charged $12 billion in late fees alone. Card interest rates generate a separate revenue stream.  

Other key findings from this report found that cardholders in majority-Black areas paid more in late fees for each card they held with major credit card issuers in 2019. People in areas with the lowest rates of economic mobility paid nearly $10 more in late fee charges per account compared to people in areas with the highest rates of economic mobility;  

Eliminating unnecessary fees

While acknowledging the Bureau’s earlier efforts to rein in high-cost overdraft fees, Nadine Chabrier, a Senior Policy Counsel with the Center for Responsible Lending says more must be done to protect consumers from other costly junk fees.   

“These charges wreak havoc on household budgets,” said Chabrier. “We applaud President Biden for highlighting their harm… We are encouraged that the consumer bureau announced it will take additional steps, and we urge the bureau to place strong limits on the size and frequency of these fees.” 

More support for eliminating these budget-busting fees came from Congresswoman Maxine Waters, the current Ranking Member of the House Financial Services Committee, and its former Chair.  

“I was pleased to hear President Biden call out junk fees by name, and double down on the Administration’s commitment to limit hidden fees and surcharges in a number of industries,” stated Waters on February 8, the day after the State of the Union Address. “[W]e have long helped lead the fight to shine a bright light on these types of harmful junk fees and have advanced legislation to ensure consumers are not nickel and dimed out of savings that could go towards buying a new home or starting a small business.”  

“Thanks to the leadership of Director Chopra, the CFPB is helping to advance these efforts to put more money back into consumers’ pockets. I, and consumers across the country, can’t wait for this rule to be finalized as soon as possible”, Waters added. 

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