Missouri and six other states have filed suit against major credit cards for unfair rules placed on merchants. The Attorney General’s office says most consumers probably don’t know that merchants have agreements with different major credit card companies that affect their bottom line.

Deputy Attorney General Joe Dandurand says merchants complained that they were forced to agree to policies that they could not promote special offers to customers for using a preferred credit card.

Dandurand says Visa and Mastercard agreed immediately to offer merchants full disclosure, but American Express is standing firm. The state has continued with the suit against American Express.

Attorney General Chris Koster  joined the United States Department of Justice and six states in filing a civil antitrust lawsuit against Visa, MasterCard and American Express for “unfair rules the credit card companies have placed on merchants.”

In addition to serving as Missouri’s Attorney General, Koster serves as cochairman of the National Association of Attorneys General’s Antitrust Committee.

“The Department of Justice and the states have reached a settlement with Visa and MasterCard that the credit card companies will remove language from their rules with merchants that forbid merchants from encouraging customers to select a certain card for purchases,” Koster says. “The lawsuit against American Express will continue.”

“Credit card companies hold a powerful place in the lives of many Missourians,” Koster adds. “Given the increasing role of credit card companies in our everyday lives, it is important that we ensure that credit card merchants abide by federal antitrust rules that maintain a fair and competitive marketplace.”

Merchants must pay fees to credit card companies in order for their customers to be able to use the cards in the form of a “swipe fee” they pay every time a credit card is used. American Express has the highest merchant fees of any credit card network. Merchants pass on these billions of dollars in fees to all their consumers in the form of higher retail prices. In 2009 alone, American Express, MasterCard and Visa and their affiliated banks collected more than $35 billion in these fees from U.S. merchants.

Under the agreement with Visa and MasterCard, merchants will be able to:

· Offer the customer an incentive, such as an immediate discount, a rebate, or a free or discounted product or service or other benefit if the consumer uses a particular credit card;

· Express a preference for the use of a particular card or means of payment;

· Promote the use of a particular card or means of payment through posted information or other communications to consumers; and

· Communicate to consumers the reasonably estimated or actual costs incurred by the retailer when a consumer uses a particular card or means of payment or the relative costs of using different cards or means of payment.

Koster said the agreement with Visa and MasterCard will take effect upon the court’s approval. Following approval, the companies will be required to promptly modify their merchant rules and direct the banks they work through to send copies of the new rules and other information to retailers.

Koster said American Express is fighting to continue its restrictions on merchants who accept American Express. Koster said American Express forces merchants to sign agreements that include very restrictive language that prevents competition at the point of sale to consumers. Under American Express’s rules:

Merchants must not:

· indicate or imply that they prefer, directly or indirectly, any Other Payment Products over [American Express’s] Card,

· try to dissuade Cardmembers from using the Card,

· criticize the Card or any of our services or programs,

· try to persuade or prompt Cardmembers to use any Other Payment Products or any other method of payment (e.g., payment by check)

· impose any restrictions, conditions, or disadvantages when the Card is accepted that are not imposed equally on all Other Payment Products, except for ACH funds transfer, cash and checks, or

· promote any Other Payment Products (except the Merchant’s own private label card that they issue for use solely at their Establishments) more actively than the Merchant promotes our card.

The ongoing litigation against American Express seeks to allow merchants that accept American Express to engage in the same kind of discounting and encouragement that the proposed settlement with Visa and MasterCard allows. Until American Express’s restraints on merchants are lifted, the many merchants that accept American Express, as well as Visa and MasterCard, will not be able to take full advantage of their new options under the proposed settlement, the Department of Justice said.

“I appreciate Visa and MasterCard’s quick decisions to remove the anticompetitive language with retailers using their cards,” Koster says. “Their prompt decision immediately improves the competitive marketplace in the state of Missouri. We will continue to litigate with American Express in the hopes of encouraging similar movement.”

The lawsuit against the credit card companies was filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York. Joining the Department of Justice and the state of Missouri in the lawsuit are the states of Connecticut, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio and Texas.

Jessica Machetta reports [Listen Mp3, 1:10 min.]