Credit Card Companies Willing to Deal over Debt

 

Hard times are usually good times for debt collectors, who make their money morning and night with the incessant ring of a phone. But in this recession, perhaps the deepest in decades, the unthinkable is happening: collectors, who usually do the squeezing, are getting squeezed a bit themselves. After helping to foster the explosive growth of consumer debt in recent years, credit card companies are realizing that some hard-pressed Americans will not be able to pay their bills as the economy deteriorates.

So lenders and their collectors are rushing to round up what money they can before things get worse, even if that means forgiving part of some borrowers' debts. Increasingly, they are stretching out payments and accepting dimes, if not pennies, on the dollar as payment in full. "You can't squeeze blood out of a turnip," said Don Siler, the chief marketing officer at MRS Associates, a big collection company that works with seven of the 10 largest credit card companies. "The big settlements just aren't there anymore."

Lenders are not being charitable. They are simply trying to protect themselves. Banks and card companies are bracing for a wave of defaults on credit card debt in early 2009, and they are vying with each other to get paid first. Besides, the sooner people get their financial houses in order, the sooner they can start borrowing again.

So even as many banks cut consumers' credit lines, raise card fees and generally pull back on lending, some lenders are trying to give customers a little wiggle room. Bank of America, for instance, says it has waived late fees, lowered interest charges and, in some cases, reduced loan balances for more than 700,000 credit card holders in 2008.

American Express and Chase Card Services say they are taking similar actions as more customers fall behind on their bills. Every major credit card lender is giving its collection agents more leeway to make adjustments for consumers in financial distress.

Debt collectors, who are typically paid based on the amount of money they recover, report that the number of troubled borrowers getting payment extensions has at least doubled in the last six months. In other cases, borrowers who appear to be pushed to the brink are being offered deals that forgive 20 to 70 percent of credit card debt.

"Consumers have never been in a better position to negotiate a partial payment," said Robert D. Manning, the author of "Credit Card Nation" and a longtime critic of the credit card industry. "It's like that old movie 'Rosalie Goes Shopping.' When it's $100,000 of debt, it's your problem. When it's a million dollars of debt, it's the bank's problem."

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