They're designed for borrowing large amounts of money for short periods of time, but credit cards are pushing millions of people into long-term debt.

Debt charity StepChange is calling on the UK's finance regulator, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), to make substantial changes to credit cards, after new figures revealed they have become debt builders for millions of customers.

According to StepChange, over 200,000 people contacted the charity for help with £1.7bn of credit card debt in the last year alone, with the average person owing nearly £8,500. 

In the last five years StepChange says it has helped people struggling with £8.6bn on credit cards.

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Today it announced that urgent action is needed to reduce the risk of credit cards becoming "long-term, costly products with high and potentially unsustainable balances". It is calling on the FCA to work with lenders on a package of measures that bring down balances, ensure responsible lending and reduce the number of people struggling with multiple credit cards. The charity also says the measures should prevent people from getting into financial difficulty in the first place.

StepChange is calling for urgent action to prevent credit cards becoming long-term costly products. Image by Rangizzz/Shutterstock.com

StepChange has put forward a suggestion to the FCA to reform minimum repayments. Their analysis shows that small reforms to minimum repayments could cut repayment periods on a £1,000 debt from 18 to 3 years and save consumers hundreds of pounds.

The charity has asked the regulator to consider forcing lenders to increase the minimum monthly payment from 1% of the debt to 2%, in order to cut repayment terms by a possible seven years.

It has also recommended fixing minimum repayments so that they do not go down until the credit card balance is cleared. This move, it says, could cut repayment terms by up to 13 years.

Mike O'Connor, chief executive of StepChange Debt Charity, said: "Minimum repayments are too low and must be set at a level that ensures both responsible lending and borrowing. 

"Although our proposals would lead to consumers repaying at a higher rate in the short term, they will lead to significant savings over the lifetime of the debt and stop debts hanging around for years.

"This is now a real test for the FCA and to succeed, it must commit to direct action that will prevent credit cards from becoming long-term debts."

The FCA previously reported that 1.6 million people are repeatedly making minimum repayments and that five million credit cards will take more than 10 years to clear at their current rate of repayments.

In 2010, the regulator made changes to increase the transparency of credit cards and encourage people to pay them off more quickly.. However, despite making some difference, StepChange says a serious problem still remains and millions of people are still struggling with credit card debt.