- The Washington Times - Friday, February 20, 2009

NEW YORK | Trouble paying your credit card bills? Your card issuer is standing by to help.

Major credit card companies launched a Web site and toll-free number this week for consumers wrestling with daunting balances.

The “Help With My Credit” campaign (www.helpwithmycredit.org) comes as the companies deal with mounting losses from defaults on credit card payments. The venture is being backed by Citigroup Inc., Discover Financial Services, Capital One Financial Corp., Bank of America Corp., Visa Inc. and MasterCard Inc.

“We want to make sure people understand the assistance and options that are available,” said Joe Ganley, a spokesman for Help With My Credit.

Callers to the toll-free number, 866/941-1030, will be given two options.

The first is to be transferred to a customer service representative at their card issuer. This will help bypass confusing phone trees and connect callers with the right person, Mr. Ganley said.

For more complicated cases involving multiple credit cards, callers will be referred to local credit counselors.

Depending on the person’s situation and the bank, callers might be able to negotiate lower fees, extended payment plans or other agreements, Mr. Ganley said. Such options already exist, but the Help With My Credit campaign is intended make more consumers aware of them.

Working out payment plans might be increasingly attractive to both card holders and issuers as the recession deepens and Americans struggle to get by.

“Companies are very aware of how difficult it is for consumers and certainly don’t want to push anyone into default,” said Bill Carache, an analyst who covers the credit card industry for Fox-Pitt Kelton in New York City.

Fitch Ratings estimates that credit card charge-offs, or loans written off as unpaid, will reach 8 percent in coming months and approach 9 percent in the second half of the year.

It’s a forecast that only adds to the widespread difficulties facing banks.

Already last month, Citigroup reported a $8.29 billion loss in the fourth quarter and announced it was splitting itself in two. Bank of America reported a $2.39 billion fourth-quarter loss just hours after working out a deal for a multibillion-dollar lifeline needed to absorb troubled brokerage Merrill Lynch.

There’s no telling how many defaults the Help With My Credit will prevent. And Mr. Ganley declined to say how much the campaign is costing.

“Obviously it’s an investment by these card issuers,” he said.

The toll-free number will be available indefinitely. The media campaign will be extended depending on consumer response and additional companies may join.

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