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Published: Wednesday, 7/16/2008

Studies find credit-card rewards confusing


NEW YORK - Some rewards cards pay cash, but many cap the payout each year.

Other cards promise points for every purchase, but the points may expire after just a year. Still others reward some purchases, such as gasoline or travel, far more than others.

The rules for rewards and cash-back cards can be confusing, according to recent separate studies released by Consumer Reports and Bankrate.com. Unwary consumers may be better off passing on some of the rewards programs, they conclude.

That's because the rewards and cash-back cards often carry much higher interest rates than nonrewards cards and may have so many restrictions that it's hard for consumers to claim a payout.

For example, consumers who don't pay their cards in full each month may find that "if the [interest] rates are high, the cost to carry a balance will often erase any savings the rewards program may offer," said Amanda Walker, senior project editor at Consumer Reports.

The study published in Consumer Reports, the monthly magazine of the nonprofit Consumers Union in Yonkers, N.Y., found that 85 percent of Americans participate in at least one rewards program. About 3 percent of those surveyed wrer in 10 or more programs.

Using data from CardRat-

ings.com, which tracks credit offerings, Consumer Reports said that the best cash-back cards include American Express' Blue Cash, Chase Freedom Visa, and Discover More cards.

But these cards weren't without limitations. For example, the Blue Cash card promises 5 percent cash back at supermarkets, gas stations and drugstores and 1.5 percent elsewhere. But $6,500 in annual spending is required to get those rewards. For those who spend less, it's 1 percent and 0.5 percent, respectively, the report said.

The magazine said the best gasoline cards included the Cash PerfectCard MasterCard, the Discover Open Road, and the Shell Platinum Select MasterCard.

Bankrate.com, an online financial information service based in North Palm Beach, Fla., looked at the cash-back offerings of nine top credit card issuers. Several offered four of more cards, often co-branded with Visa or MasterCard.

A handful of the cards had annual fees, which make sense only for consumers who spend a lot of money on their cards, Bankrate.com said.

A variable was how the payout was made, the study found.

Some cards, such as the Citi Cash Returns MasterCard from Citigroup, pay out automatically; but consumers holding HSBC cash-back cards have to request the rebate, it added.

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