WASHINGTON — The Justice Department on Monday sued the three largest U.S. credit card companies for anticompetitive practices and reached a proposed settlement with two of them, MasterCard and Visa.
"We want to put more money in consumers' pockets, and by eliminating credit card companies' anticompetitive rules, we will accomplish exactly that," Attorney General Eric Holder told an afternoon news conference. "The companies put merchants and their customers in a no-win situation" and "consumers are being held hostage."
American Express Co. said it is willing to wage a multiyear fight against the federal lawsuit, arguing that the Justice Department's proposed remedy would promote steering customers from one payment network to another and "will do nothing to enhance competition."
In papers filed in federal court in Brooklyn, the department and various state attorneys general sued all three companies, saying they were attempting to insulate themselves from competition.
At the same time, the Justice Department filed a settlement it has reached with Visa and MasterCard. Court approval of such settlements is usually a formality.
Under the settlement, Visa and MasterCard agree not to prohibit merchants from offering customers discounts or rebates for using a particular kind of card. Visa and MasterCard also must allow merchants to express preferences for the use of a low-cost card within a network or other form of payment.
The lawsuit says the card companies are impeding merchants from promoting the use of competing credit or charge cards with lower acceptance fees.
Each time consumers use a credit card to make a purchase, the merchant must pay a fee. Such fees brought in $35 billion last year to the three credit card companies and their affiliated banks.
"We're partway there" with the proposed agreement with Visa and MasterCard, Assistant Attorney General Christine Varney, head of the department's antitrust division, told the news conference.
"We remain open" to seek a settlement with American Express," Varney added.
Shares of American Express closed at $39.05, down more than 6 percent; MasterCard ended at $222.64 down less than 1 percentage point, and Visa was down for the day at $73.24, losing less than a quarter percentage point.
Joining the lawsuit were state attorneys general from Maryland, Connecticut, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio and Texas.
American Express maintained that its agreements with merchants protect its cardholders, who tend to be more affluent and spend more than other card users. Moreover, the company said, many of its merchant contracts do allow promotions.
"In effect, the government is arguing that we cannot freely negotiate with our merchants about how they treat our card members at the point of sale," said Amex General Counsel Louise Parent. She said the contracts are "intended to shield consumers from pressure by merchants not to use the cards of their choice."
AP business writer Eileen AJ Connelly contributed to this report.