Universal Default: What It Is and How to Beat It

If you pay your credit card bill late, you shouldn't be surprised to see your interest rate go up. But many cards also have a "universal default" clause, which means your bank can hike your rate if you make a late payment anywhere.

Essentially, the universal default clause allows credit card issuers to raise your interest rate if you default on any of your outstanding credit obligations. (That is, if you're more than 30 days late on a payment.) Even if you have never been late paying on that particular card, your rate can still be affected by late payments to other creditors. For many credit card holders these penalty rate increases occur without warning or explanation.

The good news? The new credit card legislation signed last week puts an end to universal default. The bad news? That law doesn't go into effect until February 2010.

Credit card issuers began inserting universal default clauses in their agreements in the mid- to late 1990s after a wave of bankruptcies. In the interim years, virtually anyone could get a credit card (sometimes with very low introductory interest rates) regardless of his or her credit worthiness.

Now, when a credit card holder shows signs of financial difficulty, universal default allows issuers to change the terms of the credit card agreement to increase the interest rate. It's a way to address the risk retroactively.

Almost anything can trigger a universal default rate increase. Of course, a late mortgage payment or a late payment to another credit card will suffice, but even a late payment on your phone bill or water bill might also do the trick. When the rate increases, it becomes whatever the pre-determined universal default rate is, which can be as high as 29.99%. It doesn’t matter what your rate was at the time of the default. Even if you are in a period of 0% interest, your rate can go up with a universal default clause.

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