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Lenders lend a hand to Katrina victims Home, car, school loans and taxes are some areas where banks and others are offering breaks.

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CNN/Money
By Jeanne Sahadi, senior writer
September 8, 2005

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) Last week, banking regulators called on financial institutions to give victims of Hurricane Katrina a break.

Many have heeded the call, although not uniformly.

Six federal agencies including the Federal Reserve, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and National Credit Union Administration asked (but did not require) financial institutions to go easy on those people affected by Katrina.

Among their recommendations, they suggested financial institutions:

Waive ATM fees, increase daily ATM cash withdrawal limits and ease restrictions on cashing out-of-state and non-consumer checks.

Waive late fees, overdraft fees and early withdrawal penalties

Allow loan customers to defer or skip some payments.

Ease credit card limits and credit terms for new loans

Delay reporting delinquent payments to the credit bureaus.

Mortgage buyers Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae also have adopted policies to allow mortgage servicers to suspend or reduce mortgage payments for customers affected by the hurricane.

Here is just a sampling of some of the breaks that have been announced: Washington Mutual will offer residents of the disaster areas penalty-free CD withdrawals, reduced interest rates on home-equity loans, fast approval on personal credit lines and alternate payment plans for loan customers.

Chase and Bank One will offer on its home, auto and small business loans and lines of credit: payment deferral for up to 90 days; waiver of late fees for 90 days and delayed reporting of negative items to credit bureaus for 90 days. On their credit cards, they will defer payment for at least 30 days, waive late fees and over-the-limit fees, expedite requests for credit-line increases and not report negative items to credit bureau reports for 90 days. Certain transaction and check-cashing fees will also be waived.

Citigroup will extend grace periods, waive fees and offer "other solutions as appropriate."

AmSouth Bank will offer automatic deferrals on installment and revolving loans, lines of credit, home equity loans, small business loans and lines of credit and AmSouth credit cards. It also is discounting loan rates and waiving certain ATM fees. Credit card holders will get a "60-day payment holiday" although interest will continue to accrue.

DaimlerChrysler will offer payment extensions and deferrals on its car loans for up to 90 days.

General Motors' financing arm, GMAC, will work with affected customers who have auto loans, mortgages or insurance with GMAC.

Ford Motor Credit will defer payments on loans up to 90 days.

Sallie Mae will provide interest-free loans of between $500 to $1,000 per person for students who have applied or received a Sallie Mae loan at schools that closed due to Katrina. The loans will be interest free through June 1, 2006, at which point they will become a prime-rate loan.

'Don't wait for victims to call'

Banks and other lenders often offer relief to customers in tough financial straits on a case-by-case basis once a customer contacts them. And indeed, a number of the institutions listed here have encouraged their customers in Katrina-ravaged areas to contact them to discuss their situations in order to get some of the breaks on offer.

But given the devastation Katrina wrought, a more permissive response might be needed in which lenders automatically offer relief to anyone they may even suspect was affected by the hurricane, said Travis Plunkett, legislative director of the Consumer Federation of America.

Given how many people have been left homeless and whose financial records have been destroyed, he said in a press conference Wednesday calling for special bankruptcy relief for Katrina victims, "they can't wait for someone to call them and beg for mercy."

Uncle Sam weighs in, too The IRS has extended tax-filing deadlines and made eligible for disaster-related tax relief 64 Louisiana parishes, 52 Mississippi counties, six Alabama counties and three Florida counties.

Residents of those areas will have until Jan. 3, 2006 to file tax returns, submit tax payments or make tax deposits for 2004 and estimated taxes for 2005.

Other relief measures granted to taxpayers in Katrina-ravaged areas include:

Abatement of interest and late-filing, late-payment or failure-to-deposit penalties.

Waiver of fees and expedition of requests for copies of previous returns.

The choice to claim disaster-related casualty losses for the tax year 2004, which requires amending their returns if already filed but insures an earlier refund; or on their 2005 return, which means they may wait longer for money back since they can't file this year's return until January 2006 at the earliest.

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There are many other ways those affected by the hurricane may get financial relief. For instance:

FEMA will give debit cards to those affected by the hurricane. And advocacy groups have called on lawmakers to exempt Katrina victims from provisions of a new bankruptcy law set to go into effect this fall.

What are people saying about mortgages today:

Rates on 30-year mortgages edged down last week to a seven-month low. Mortgage-giant Freddie Mac reported Thursday that 30-year, fixed-rate mortgages fell to 6.3 percent, down slightly from 6.31 percent two weeks ago. It put rates at the lowest level since they were at 6.24 percent the first week of March.

Bank of Hawaii, Central Pacific Bank, Territorial Savings Bank and Wells Fargo Home Mortgages all cut their 30-year mortgage rates to 5.75 percent this week.

Most people think of a mortgage as a means to an end. After all, you buy a house, not a home loan. But a mortgage is much more than the path to homeownership. It is a financial instrument that must be managed, just like any other financial investment.