Yesterday in the nation’s capital, the National Retail Federation (NRF) urged state legislators from across the nation to continue efforts to control the $36 billion in credit card interchange fees paid by consumers each year, saying state legislation will help focus public attention on the little-known charges.
“The activities you are doing in the states to shine a light on these fees and make consumers aware of them is an important step in the right direction,” NRF Senior Vice President and General Counsel Mallory Duncan said. “When Visa and MasterCard take their cut, they don’t take it on just the retail sale, they take it on the entire transaction including the sales tax. That’s not their money. The sales tax is the people’s money, and they shouldn’t be trying to take a piece of it. That drives up prices even higher, and everybody ends up paying a tax on a tax.”
Duncan spoke yesterday at the National Conference of State Legislatures’ Spring Conference in Washington as part of a panel discussion on credit card interchange.
Duncan told legislators interchange is of particular concern in regard to sales tax because it is added to the transaction after sales tax has been applied to purchases, resulting in a larger fee than if it applied only to merchandise. Retailers are required to remit the entire sales tax amount to state treasuries, so merchandise must be priced high enough to compensate for the interchange charged on the sales tax, he said.
Nine states have introduced at least 15 bills on interchange this year, including measures to ban interchange fees on the sales tax portion of transactions in Florida, Kansas, Nevada, New York and Washington. Kentucky, Nebraska and Texas have introduced bills requiring credit card companies to be more transparent in disclosing rules and fees.
Interchange is a percentage of each transaction that Visa and MasterCard collect from retailers each time a credit or signature debit card is used to pay for a purchase. The amount varies with type of card, transaction and merchant, but averages close to 2%. Most consumers do not know that they are paying the fee because Visa and MasterCard do not disclose the charge on monthly statements and prohibit retailers from showing it on receipts. Visa and MasterCard collected approximately $36 billion in interchange during 2006, up 17% from the year before and an increase of 117.5 % since 2001.
With the 2% average rate roughly equal to the retail industry’s average profit margin, Duncan explained to legislators that retailers cannot absorb the charge and are effectively required to pass it on to consumers. Since Visa and MasterCard require the advertised price of merchandise to be the credit card price and make cash discounts difficult, the fee drives up prices even for consumers who pay by cash or check, he said.
The state action follows growing interest on Capitol Hill in the past year. No federal legislation has been introduced, but the Senate Judiciary Committee last year held a hearing on whether interchange practices violate federal antitrust law. The Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee plans to hold a hearing on interchange this year, and the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee may include the issue in its investigation of abusive credit card industry practices and fees. Meanwhile, 50 antitrust lawsuits on the issue are pending in U.S. District Court in New York.
Dang. Now shopping has lost it’s luster. OK, a little.
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