We’re trying not to get our hopes too high since it’s only a couple weeks into the new year, but  2013 is looking like it could actually be a pretty good one for consumers. We know – we’re as shocked as you are. But last week, a federal antitrust trial began against the alleged unfair practices three of the largest U.S. credit card companies – Discover Financial, American Express and CitiGroup – and the result could have big implications for your rights as a consumer and, most importantly, for your money.

To get a credit card, you almost always have to sign an agreement, and in the fine print of that agreement there’s almost always a clause saying that you waive your right to dispute fees in court. Instead, you must settle through arbitration, which is basically a trial outside of court where the outcome is decided by a third party instead of a judge and jury. While proponents say that arbitration speeds up the settlement process and keeps the courts from getting backed up, consumer advocates argue that it favors big business. “Who are you going to favor, the company that might send you more business, or the consumer who you’ll never see again?” said Lauren Sanders, an attorney for the National Consumer Law Center, in an NPR story last year.

In 1996, the Supreme Court deemed it unfair for credit card companies to force arbitration on consumers and assured that you could take your disputes to trial anyway. But last year, in a somewhat shocking victory for the powers that be, the court overturned this ruling 8 to 1.

Plaintiffs in this year’s trial are trying to reverse that reversal. They’re not seeking damages – they simply want consumers to have the option to fight back in court. They claim that arbitration is more expensive and burdensome to consumers than filing class action suits.  What’s more, they say, the average person is probably unwittingly signing away his or her bargaining rights. Most people simply don’t even know what arbitration is. It sounds like something that happens in the bathroom after you eat a Junior Deluxe value meal at Arby’s, and for consumers who’ve tried to dispute fees this way, that’s a pretty good metaphor for the usual outcome. “If the average consumer was aware of the costs they’d have to bear in arbitration, they wouldn’t do it,” said plaintiff Robert Ross when he took the stand last week.

The bad news about this trial is that even if the court rules in favor of consumers, it won’t permanently get rid of credit card arbitration clauses – it would only force the companies on trial to do away with them for eight years. The good news is that the trial has forced credit card companies who want your business to pay attention. For instance, following highly publicized arbitration settlements in the past, Chase, Bank of America and Capital One all dropped their arbitration clauses for good in an attempt to gain more customers.

Whatever the result of this trial, the bottom line is that as a consumer, the best thing you can do to avoid getting screwed is to be diligent about educating yourself. And that’s what we’re here to help you do at CCA. Have an experience with arbitration? Share it with us in the comment section.

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