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Anthrax Good For Your Wallet

Leaders of the financial services industry have agreed to a procedure that will waive financial penalties for people whose mail is delayed due to the anthrax crisis - or any similar future scare.

The agreement is based on legislation introduced by Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., whose constituents have been disproportionately affected by the closure of an anthrax-contaminated mail processing center in Hamilton, N.J.

"It is simply not right to penalize people for a problem that was out of their hands," Smith said Monday.

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Smith's bill would have prohibited creditors from imposing late fees, increasing interest rates or downgrading the credit record of anybody whose mail was disrupted by "a biological, chemical, or radiological attack."

To help get the provisions in place quickly, the House Financial Services Committee helped convene discussions with the industry. Those talks led to the agreement.

Smith's spokesman, Nick Manetto, said the new procedure will be activated when the U.S. Postal Service determines there has been a significant disruption of mail.

The postal service will notify Congress, regulators and financial industry associations of the dates and zip codes affected. The associations plan to notify their member companies, which will establish policies to waive penalties.

In the anthrax case, two post offices have been closed for significant periods of time: the Hamilton center in New Jersey and the Brentwood post office in Washington. Manetto said many lenders have already taken steps to assist people whose mail has been delayed by the closures.

The deal covers most bill-issuing entities, but not all. Among those not covered: utilities and department stores. But they will be encouraged to follow the guidelines.

Ed Yingling, executive director for government relations at the American Bankers Association, said the arrangement offers a blueprint for coordination in the event of future mail disruptions.

"Obviously what happened after the anthrax was found in the mail was an ad hoc response by everybody involved - the post office, individual banks and others," he said.

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