Swiping plastic could soon mean higher fees

A consumer pays with a credit card at a store July 6, 2010 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

TORONTO - Canadian shoppers who use credit cards may soon find themselves slapped with extra fees, if retailers win a fight against being stuck with transaction charges from Visa and MasterCard.

Retail organizations renewed their calls Tuesday for Ottawa to loosen credit card regulations following a landmark ruling south of the border that could have implications for a case that will be decided by a federal tribunal later this year.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business, which has more than 100,000 member businesses across Canada, is calling for changes to the federally regulated code of conduct that would allow retailers more rights, including the ability to make credit card users pay a surcharge or refuse credit cards at their stores.

If successful, their campaign would settle a gripe between retailers and credit card operators, and allow merchants the freedom to either accept or deny certain credit cards at their registers.

"Merchants have had a 30 per cent increase in their costs in the last two years because of premium (credit) cards," said Dan Kelly, the president and CEO of the CFIB in an interview.

"Those additional costs are finding their way into their service. Consumers are paying these fees already, and they're going up."

The CFIB wants merchants to have the ability to add surcharges on credit card users that would counteract the transaction fees charged by some credit card companies.

Currently Visa and MasterCard rules state that merchants cannot levy any surcharges on credit card users, forcing retailers to absorb the cost of usage themselves.

Those fees — ranging from 1.5 to 3.0 per cent of the value of customer purchases — are about twice the rate credit card firms charge merchants in Australia, New Zealand and many parts of Europe, but slightly below the U.S. average.

The issue has been of concern to the Competition Bureau, which argued in May that restrictive contracts put in place by Visa and MasterCard allow the two credit card companies — which represent 92 per cent of the market — to essentially dictate terms to merchants.

The tribunal has the power to force credit card companies to change their method of operations, but it cannot levy a monetary penalty in the case.

Last week, a landmark settlement in the United States between Visa, MasterCard and merchants thrust the debate back into the spotlight in Canada.

The two credit card companies, as well as several major banks, reached an agreement to pay U.S. retailers at least US$6 billion to settle a long-running lawsuit that alleged the card issuers conspired to fix the fees that stores pay to accept credit cards. The dispute stretched back to 2005.

MasterCard Canada defended its current fee structure as part of its "commitment to consumer protection."

"MasterCard Inc.'s agreement to settle U.S. merchant litigation is strictly a U.S. matter and has no bearing on the Canadian market," said spokeswoman Deborah Rowe in an emailed statement.

Visa Canada said it believes it presented a strong case at the Competition Tribunal hearing, and believes that credit cards without surcharges should be allowed and "preserve consumer choice at checkout and ensure cardholders are not penalized for using their preferred form of payment."

Under last week's settlement, the U.S. merchants will be allowed to charge their customers more if they pay with credit cards.

"It's further recognition of the imbalance in the payments industry particularly around credit cards," said David Wilkes, senior vice president of the Retail Council of Canada.

"There is going to have to be protections built into the code of conduct to ensure the retailer has the ability to manage and control their costs," he added.

The ruling has caused some concern that if the regulations are similarly changed in Canada, shoppers could be stuck with extra fees if they choose to pay with their credit cards.

That possibility concerns Laurie Campbell, the chief executive of Credit Canada, a credit counselling service.

"I worry about those individuals that are carrying balances, that may need to use their credit cards," she said.

"They're living from one paycheque to the next. It's just going to hit them even more. They need the break, they don't need the transaction fees."

Those are the types of stories that Kelly said he believes will cause both Visa and MasterCard to reconsider the fees they charge retailers, especially because customers will be fully aware of the new fees they're being forced to pay.

"We believe (it) would change behaviour among the credit card companies and the banks," he said.

"The fear they would have of merchants starting to either turn down cards or to surcharge for transactions, those are the two holy grails in the credit card industry."

The CFIB also argues Canada's code of conduct needs provisions for new mobile types of payment, such as by mobile phone.

"We provided a list of all the things we'd like to see happen to ensure that mobile technologies aren't used by the credit card companies and the banks as another giant fee grab," Wilkes said.