The Great Plastic Robbery Continues: Visa, MasterCard Still 'Ripping Off' US Consumers

  on August 03 2012 12:12 PM

U.S. consumers and companies are still being ripped off by exorbitant "swipe fees" from card merchants Visa Inc. [NYSE:V] and MasterCard Inc. [NYSE:MA], an industry group has claimed.

The Merchants Payments Coalition (MPC), which represents retailers, says the fees levied on American supermarkets, stores and gas stations by Visa and MasterCard are up to three times more than in other parts of the world, inflating prices for U.S. consumers.

The claim comes only weeks after Visa, MasterCard and several major banks agreed to pay U.S. retailers a record $7.25 billion in penalties to settle a long-running lawsuit that alleged the card giants conspired to fix so-called "swipe fees" paid by shops and supermarkets.

Swipe fees -- or interchange fees -- are the fees that charge-card providers levy on retailers for using their cards for each transaction. The fee is deducted by the card's issuing bank, effectively making it a charge on retailers for using the service.

According to the MPC, two dollars of every $100 spent using plastic goes directly to the credit card industry, with Americans paying over $48 billion in swipe fees in 2008 -- up to three times more than in Europe.

The MPC says that, despite the offer from Visa and MasterCard, Americans will still be paying many times more than consumers in Europe and other parts of the world, where state regulators have been more aggressive in pursuing the card companies.

In Europe, for instance, cross-border swipe fees are 0.3 percent of the purchase cost. In Australia they are 0.5 percent.

By contrast, Visa and MasterCard charge U.S. merchants around 3 percent, according to Doug Kantor, counsel of the Merchants Payments Coalition.

On Wednesday, The National Community Pharmacists Association (NCPA) joined retail giant Wal-Mart [WMT] and others in rejecting the multibillion-dollar settlement, which would still leave the same rate-setting practices in place.

"After closely reviewing this complex and multifaceted proposed agreement along with legal counsel, NCPA's board concluded that the settlement is insufficient and that accepting it would not be in the best interest of merchants and the independent community pharmacy owners that NCPA represents," NCPA CEO Douglas Hoey said.

Also on Wednesday, European Union antitrust regulators said they objected to Visa Europe's credit card fees, saying they stifled competition.

"Our preliminary conclusion is that Visa's [fees] inflate the costs of payment card acceptance and ultimately increase consumer prices," said Antoine Colombani, spokesman for European competition commissioner Joaquin Almunia.

"We believe at this stage that these fees are a restriction for competition."

EU regulators have a history of action against Visa and MasterCard.

In 2009, the commission brought antitrust charges against Visa Europe, and in May this year a European court rejected a legal challenge by MasterCard, which was appealing an EU ruling over fees from 2007.

"European regulators are taking action to deal with Visa's outrageous swipe fees -- even though the fees in Europe are a tiny fraction of what they are in the United States," Kantor said.

 "This should be a wake-up call that credit-card swipe-fee reform is long overdue here."

The July deal, which lawyers called the largest antitrust settlement in U.S. history, was set to resolve dozens of lawsuits filed by U.S. retailers in 2005 that accused the card companies of fixing fees for processing credit and debit card payments and prohibiting stores from steering their customers to cheaper forms of payment.

The agreement saw Visa, MasterCard and more than a dozen banks offer to pay a number of high-profile retailers, such as Kroger supermarkets, Rite Aid and Payless ShoeSource, as well as the National Association of Convenience Stores, the National Grocers Association and the American Booksellers Association, $6 billion in compensation and agree to reduce swipe fees for eight months, a move valued at $1.2 billion, the Chicago Tribune reported.

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