Visa credit card in wallet
Visa credit card in wallet - 
Listen To The Story


Steve Chiotakis: Hey, here's a nice stocking stuffer for you: If your home loan is through Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, you won't get kicked out of your house through the holidays. They are freezing foreclosures and evictions during the season, from November 26 to January 9. More than 16,000 homeowners will likely benefit.

There seems to be this pattern here of people getting in over their heads -- mortgage holders in homes they can't afford, and credit card holders in debt up their eyeballs. What's an industry to do? Here's Marketplace's Stacey Vanek-Smith.

Stacey Vanek-Smith: Back in college, Dana VanHove signed up for a credit card. Little did she know, she would spend the next two decades paying it off.

Dana VanHove: I didn't feel like I was abusive with the card, but it snowballed into this huge monster of debt. Which now at age 43, I just got it paid off.

VanHove's debt ballooned to five figures, and she was being hounded by her credit card company.

There's a lot of that going around. Americans owe more than $900 billion on their cards. And it's as big a problem for the credit card companies as it is for the debtors.

Robert Manning: This is the greatest crisis period in the history of the American credit card industry.

Robert Manning is the author of Credit Card Nation. He says card companies got themselves into trouble the same way mortgage companies did. They started loosening their lending standards because they were packaging their debt and selling it to other investors.

Manning: So the big credit card issuers were looking for literally anybody with a pulse to offer them credit, because they were going to pass that risk on to an investor.

And the credit card companies didn't worry that consumers wouldn't pay their bills, because those could always tap their home equity lines of credit -- until they couldn't. More than a million people will file for bankruptcy this year, with an average credit card debt of $50,000.

Card companies have already seen default rates soar and they're having to put money aside to cover defaults. Manning says that is making the credit crisis even worse.

Manning: This is extremely serious. It raises the question of where are banks going to raise the cash to loan to consumers.

To bring in cash, card companies are changing rules to allow consumers to make smaller payments. And under one pilot program, card companies are forgiving big chunks of debt for 50,000 card holders.

Dana VanHove negotiated a settlement with her card company for about half of what she owed.

VanHove: It's not like I spent all that money, most of it was huge fees and huge penalties. I don't think I got away with anything.

But from now on, VanHove says she'll stick to her debit card.

I'm Stacey Vanek-Smith for Marketplace.

Follow Stacey Vanek Smith at @svaneksmith