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Credit card debt falls while delinquencies rise

LOS ANGELES — Ramped-up holiday season spending typically keeps some borrowers from making timely payments on their credit cards in the last three months of the year, and 2012 was no exception.

The rate of credit card payments at least 90 days overdue jumped to 0.85 percent in the fourth quarter from 0.78 percent a year earlier, credit reporting agency TransUnion said Wednesday.

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That’s an increase of about 9 percent. The rate also climbed 13 percent from the third quarter, when it was 0.75 percent, the firm said.

Much of the growth in late payments on credit cards in the October-December period is due to higher spending for the holiday season, said Ezra Becker, vice president of research and consulting for Trans-Union.

When the bills arrive in January, many cardholders who missed payments start taking steps to catch up, which ends up lowering the delinquency rate in the first quarter.

‘‘For people who might have overspent themselves, they might not have the money right on hand to pay, but once they start to get their tax refunds and their year-end bonuses, you see that come back into line,’’ Becker said.

Still, that task is more difficult this year because most paychecks have been reduced since Congress and the White House allowed a two-year reduction in Social Security payroll taxes to lapse at the end of December.

In addition, Americans due to receive an income tax refund may have to wait a bit longer for their check this year, because the Internal Revenue Service got off to a late start.

While many cardholders failed to keep up with payments in the fourth quarter, the average amount of debt charged by borrowers declined on an annual basis. The average credit card debt per borrower fell 1.6 percent to $5,122 from the last three months of 2011, though it grew 2.5 percent from the July-September quarter, TransUnion said.

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