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Gasoline price windfall fuels big profits for credit card companies

As the price of gasoline rides the storm tides of two hurricanes, one group is crying all the way to the bank.

Major credit card companies are reaping huge profits from rising gas prices because the fee that banks charge gas stations to process a credit card transaction is based on a percentage of the purchase price. As gas prices go up, the processing fee goes up.

Since last year, the fees that gas stations paid to credit card companies have risen 64 percent, right along with the price of gasoline.

"It's unexpected revenue, because people are just doing what they were always doing," said David Robertson, publisher of the Nilson Report, a credit card industry newsletter. "It's not like a whole new market opened up. There's no behavioral change. It's just more money."

And lots of it. On a typical day, Americans buy 382 million gallons of gasoline, according to the federal Energy Information Administration. About 70 percent of that is paid for by credit card, said several trade associations representing gas stations. The credit card processing fees paid by gas stations, meanwhile, average about 2.5 percent, these trade groups agree.

So a year ago, when gas prices averaged $1.87, banks involved in credit card processing made about $12.5 million a day on fees. Now, with prices averaging $2.75 nationally, the credit card companies are raking in $18.4 million a day.

That is $183 million more a month, or nearly $2.2 billion dollars on an annual basis in extra money paid to the nation's banking giants just because of rising gasoline prices.

"The credit card processors and banks are reaping enormous profits right now," said Paul Fiore, director of government affairs for the Washington, Maryland, Delaware Service Station & Automotive Repair Association. "That's right out of the dealer's profit."

Fiore said credit card fees have become the top issue among gas station owners because they have not been able to raise their profit margins to cover the increased fees they must pay to the banks.

The fees are especially burdensome for gas stations, because their profit structure is generally fixed: Stations tack on anywhere from 7 to 11 cents a gallon to get their profit. That margin stays the same, or may even shrink a little, as prices rise, yet the station has to pay more each month to cover rising credit card transaction fees.

Adding to the difficulty for gasoline retailers is the fact that consumers are using credit cards more often for those costlier gasoline purchases. The National Association of Convenience Stores says that since Hurricane Katrina, the percentage of gasoline purchases on plastic has gone up 10 points, to 80 percent.

Each oil company's own branded credit card charges its station owners lower fees, but those cards account for a small -- and decreasing -- percentage of sales at retail gas stations, said Daniel F. Gilligan, president of the Petroleum Marketers Association. Debit cards, too, have slightly lower fees than traditional credit cards but also represent a small portion, about 16 percent, of transactions, according to the convenience store group. It is major credit cards offering frequent-flier miles and rebates that get swiped the most, they say.

But there is growing pressure on the industry to curb its fees.

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