By The U.S. Federal Reserve recently issued new rules that limit late-payment fees imposed on credit-card holders.

 The rules represent the third and final stage of the Fed’s implementation of the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act (CARD)  of 2009, which was enacted in May 2009.

This is what you need to know:

As of Aug.  22, 2010, your credit-card issuer generally cannot charge you a penalty fee of more than $25 the first time you have a check returned, make a payment late or go over your credit limit, according to rules issued by the Federal Reserve Bank on June 15, 2010.

• There are two exceptions to the $25 limit: 1) if you have “engaged in repeated violations,” or 2) if “the issuer can show that a higher fee represents a reasonable proportion of the costs its incurs as a result of violations,” the Fed said in a statement.

• As of Aug. 22, card issuers can no longer charge you a penalty fee that exceeds the dollar amount associated with your late payment.  Which means a card-issuing bank can no longer charge a $39 fee when you are late making a $20 minimum payment. The fee cannot exceed the amount of the minimum payment.

• As of Aug. 22, card issuers can no longer multiple penalty fees based on one late payment.
President Barack Obama signed the credit-card law to roll out in three stages.

Provisions already in effect include giving consumers the right to reject rate increases within 45 days and to pay off balances at current rates. Companies also must mail bills 21 days before due dates, up from 14 days.

In addition to the Fed rules announced in early June, the Center for Responsible Lending released a study on credit-card late fees last month. It analyzed data on the top 100 credit card issuers collected during the summer of 2009.

Here is what you need to know from the study:

• Strongly consider getting a credit card from a credit union, rather than a bank.  The CRL study released found that credit unions charged a median late fee of $20 compared to banks’ $39 for late fees. Credit-card banks - institutions that primarily focus on credit cards - tended to charge significantly higher fees.  Large banks also tended to charge higher fees.

• Don’t respond to mail solicitations, especially blank checks offering cash advances. Credit-card issuers that are aggressive in areas outside of pricing – such as heavy mailing of new account solicitations or mailing of cash advance checks - tended to charge higher late fees.

• Although credit-card issuers often claim their losses from non-payment of credit card debt drive higher prices, the CRL study found “credit losses are a very weak predictor of late fee amounts.

Of 28 variables examined in the study,  credit losses had the second lowest correlation with the level of late fees. Losses have absolutely no relationship with fee levels when other factors are taken into account, the study found.

Other things you should know about credit card late fees:

• From January 2003 to December 2007, the average late fee charged by large card issuers rose 17% to $35.24,  according to CardWeb.com.

• In 2007, lenders collected a record $18.1 billion in credit card penalty fees, up 69% from 2003, according to the R.K. Hammer consulting firm.

• Households with incomes below $25,000 are twice as likely to pay credit card rates of more than 20% than those earning $50,000 and five times more likely to pay such rates than those earning $100,000, according to a 2006 study by the Demos public policy research group.

Lower-income, single and minority borrowers were also more likely to pay late fees than others were, the study found.

• The typical U.S. household has 11 credit cards and owes $11,211 on them, according to CardTrak.com.