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WASHINGTON -- Out-of-control credit card interchange fees aren't just a supermarket issue. Four major trade groups representing other retail industries have filed an antitrust class action alleging that Visa, MasterCard, Bank of America, Citibank, Bank One, Chase Manhattan Bank, J.P. Morgan, Chase, Fleet Bank, Capital One, and other banks are engaging in collusive practices by setting credit card interchange fees at "supracompetitive levels."
The suit's plaintiffs -- the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS), the National Association of Chain Drug Stores (NACDS), the National Community Pharmacists Association (NCPA) and the National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA) -- represent hundreds of thousands of drug stores, convenience stores, and food stores across the United States that accept Visa and MasterCard as a form of payment.
In the United States, interchange is the largest component of credit card fees and has a significant impact on American consumers, who are affected by interchange rates that are among the highest in the world. Interchange rates cost the average American household approximately $232 a year in 2004, according to a statement from NACDS.
When consumers purchase goods or services with a credit card, the payment is processed through the merchant's bank and the bank that issued the consumer the credit card. The issuing bank charges the merchant's bank a fee to process the transaction. The merchant's bank then adds its own fee for processing the transaction, and passes on both of these fees -- collectively known as interchange -- to the merchant.
"The credit card interchange system serves as a hidden tax, both on merchants and consumers, and raises the costs of all products regardless of the form of tender," said Hank Armour, c.e.o. of the NACS. "And these credit card interchange fees have rapidly increased over the past several years, despite efforts by individual convenience stores to control these costs or make the competitive market work."
Interchange fees are meant to cover the cost of processing a credit card transaction and the risk taken by the issuing bank that the credit will not be repaid. However, the plaintiffs say that both fraud costs and the cost of processing are steadily decreasing, while U.S. interchange rates continue to increase.
"Credit card interchange fees are the third-largest expense for many chain drug stores after rent and the cost of labor," said Craig Fuller, c.e.o. of the NACDS. "These costs have skyrocketed over the past years, even though the costs of credit card transactions for the banks have fallen. NACDS weighed many options in dealing with this issue and decided to seek litigation only after careful deliberations, with the ultimate recognition that it was necessary for the long-term reform of the system."
The suit's plaintiffs added they would seek damages and injunctive relief to stop the alleged anticompetitive practices of banks and credit card companies.
"We are not seeking some form of temporary relief; we are looking for long-term reform of the credit card interchange fee system," said John Rector, general counsel of the NCPA. "The current system discriminates against small independent businesspersons, and there is no basis for that discrimination. We ultimately seek a competitive and fair interchange fee system. Interchange is much higher in the United States than any other country, and there is no legitimate basis for that."
NCGA, which couldn't be reached for comment yesterday, represents 99 independent food co-ops that operate 120 storefronts in 31 states, with combined annual sales of more than $626 million.
The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York on Friday by Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi, LLP.