Leaders in the financial services industry agreed to a procedure yesterday to waive late fees and other penalties for late payments caused by a widespread delay in mail delivery, such as occurred during the recent anthrax crisis.
Financial companies signing on to the procedure included Morgan Stanley, MasterCard, CitiGroup, Bank of America, American Express, Capital One and Visa. The announcement came at a news conference in Washington.
The procedure would be activated when the U.S. Postal Service determines there has been a significant disruption of mail.
The postal service will notify Congress, regulators and financial industry associations of the dates and ZIP codes affected. The trade associations would then notify creditors and the public about the areas affected. The creditors could not charge any late fees, increase a consumer's APR, provide damaging credit information or take any other negative action against people who live in affected areas.
Though the deal covers most bill-issuing entities, it does not include utilities and department stores. They are encouraged to follow the guidelines, however.
The procedure was sparked by legislation introduced by Rep. Chris Smith, R-NJ, whose constituents were among the most affected by the closure of an anthrax-contaminated mail-processing center in Hamilton, NJ.
The legislation, the Late Fee Emergency Relief Act of 2001, HR 3175, was introduced in October following the closure of the postal service's Hamilton Distribution Facility. The bill was passed by the House Financial Services Committee but has not moved out of committee yet.
Smith's spokesman, Nick Manetto, said that instead of waiting for the bill to go through Congress, the committee decided to convene discussions with the industry. Manetto said the bill has 31 co-sponsors and will continue to collect co-sponsors.
Ed Yingling, executive director for government relations at the American Bankers Association, said the arrangement offers a blueprint for coordination in case of future mail disruptions.
“Obviously what happened after the anthrax was found in the mail was an ad hoc response by everybody involved — the post office, individual banks and others,” he said in a statement. “I am very pleased that the financial services industry has agreed to do what is right, and step up to the plate during this national crisis.”