HONOLULU - The state has filed seven lawsuits against banks and credit card companies that allegedly charge Hawaii customers for payment protection programs they don't want or can't qualify for.
The products are marketed as a way to protect cardholders against unauthorized charges, stolen or lost cards and identity theft, and might offer benefits in the event of unemployment or disability.
However, attorneys for the state say many of those enrolled in the payment protection programs aren't qualified to receive benefits. Those who might be ineligible include retirees on fixed incomes, part-time or seasonal workers, and self-employed individuals.
Others aren't aware they have payment protection on their cards in the first place. A practice called "slamming," for example, enrolls cardholders in protection plans when they might think they're just agreeing to receive more information, explained state Attorney General David Louie.
The monthly fee might be small enough to go unnoticed on credit card bills, he added.
"Be careful, be aware and go scrutinize your credit card bills. You may not notice there's these little charges, but those little charges can add up," Louie said.
The state will be represented by Honolulu attorney Rick Fried, in association with firms Golomb & Honik of Philadelphia and Baron & Budd of Dallas. The Mainland firms have experience suing the banks and companies named in Hawaii's suits: Bank of America, Barclays, Capital One, Chase, Citi, Discover, HSBC and their subsidiaries.
According to Fried, an estimated 110,000 credit cards in Hawaii - 4 percent of all cards - have protection plans, and the fees add up to about $150 per card on average.
"The potential claim here is in the millions of dollars because the penalty is based on our statute, or the Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act, which provides penalties from $500 to $10,000 per violation," Fried said.
While there have been a significant number of complaints on the Mainland, there have only been a handful in Hawaii. The attorneys expect that the lawsuits might lead to more complaints.
"It's a deceptive practice, because over a large number of people you can make a lot of money doing this thing," Louie said. "We want to make sure this is stopped."
Payment protection plan lawsuits also have been filed or are being prepared in West Virginia, New Mexico and Minnesota.
In 2011, Chase agreed to create a $20 million settlement fund that will refund $15 to $60 to plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit.
Hawaii's lawsuits are not class actions, and while a favorable judgment may help consumers recover some of their payments, any penalties collected will go to attorney's fees and the state's general fund.