Merchants say card companies’ liable for more than $10 billion in damages

Interchange issue not dead, plaintiffs claim Visa and MasterCard still fixing fees

Who else wants a piece of the credit card companies? Weeks after news broke that automated teller machine (ATM) owners are fed up with Visa and MasterCard allegedly artificially raising the prices consumers pay for ATM use, a federal judge heard oral arguments yesterday that the card companies are still choking interchange networks and conspired to inflate fees retailers pay to process card payments.

Lawyers representing merchants, trade associations, credit card companies and their issuing banks pled their cases to Judge John Gleeson of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York over whether to proceed to trial with more antitrust allegations against the card issuers’ and banks’ interchange networks.

Another group of retailers, including Sears and Wal-Mart, reached a $3.05 billion settlement with Visa and MasterCard over similar claims about eight years ago. But since that settlement only covered the card companies’ conduct prior to Jan. 1, 2004, a fresh group of plaintiffs now allege that the card issuers’ practices and anti-competitive conduct is virtually unchanged since then.

The current group of plaintiffs, including Payless ShoeSource Inc. and the National Restaurant Association, say the card companies’ liability could be much higher, with monetary damages estimated in the tens of billions.

MasterCard issued a detailed statement on the interchange lawsuit, In re: Payment Card Interchange Fee and Merchant Discount Antitrust Litigation, on its website, but asserts that the suits are without merit and are “a clear demonstration of certain merchants wanting the significant benefits of accepting payment cards without having to pay for the value of the services they receive.”

The card company adds that the lawsuits are being driven by class action lawyers looking to get rich off the fees.

Last month, a putative class of disgruntled ATM operators filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia alleging that Visa and MasterCard network rules prohibit ATM operators from offering lower prices for transactions over PIN-debit networks not affiliated with the card issuers. The lawsuit charges the companies with restraint of trade and seeks class action status.

For more, read Reuters’ in-depth analysis.

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