Home Depot and Lowe's face class-action lawsuits charging that "interest-free" promotions on purchases made with in-store credit cards are anything but. In fact, the lawsuits charge that consumers wind up paying much more interest on existing and future purchases.

The suits also name General Electric's Monogram Credit Card Bank, which issues the store-brand credit cards for both Home Depot and Lowe's.

The lawsuits charge that both Home Depot and Lowe's hide the fact that consumers won't be able to pay off any existing or future in-store credit-card balances until after they pay off the "interest-free" promotional purchases.

Home Depot's promotion offers "no payments and no interest for six months" on purchases of $299 or more when customers use Home Depot's credit card. But in face, the suit alleges, the company's Web site states that finance charges accrue from the date or purchase and will be added to the customer's account if the purchases aren't paid in full by the end of the six-month period.

We believe Home Depot and Lowes blindsided consumers with this promotional shell game, said Steve Berman, one of the attorneys in the case. In effect, this promotion puts customers in the position of having to pay more now, or more later not the deal the consumer expected.

According to Berman, if a customer who had a $300 balance at 21 percent on a store credit card purchased a $500 washer under the interest-free promotion, the customer could not pay off the $300 balance which is racking up high interest charges until the $500 interest-free washer is completely paid off.

Lowe's offers a similar promotion for purchases includinig flooring products.

Suits have been filed in California and Washington and others are expected to follow.

Named plaintiffs Teresa and John Kaminski spent more than $670 on their Home Depot credit card in January 2003, taking advantage of the six-month interest-free terms offered by the store, the suit states. Then the Kaminskis spent nearly $300 at another Home Depot store in February and sent in a payment for the exact amount of that purchase, the suit claims.

Later, after receiving their statement, the Kaminskis discovered that Home Depot applied the $300 payment to the interest-free $670 purchase and continued to charge them 21 percent per annum interest on the February $300 purchase, according to the suit.

I felt like Home Depot is using a credit-card shell game with us, said John Kaminski. We thought Home Depot was offering us a fair deal, but in reality they were rigging it so we would lose every time.

When Kaminski contacted Monogram Credit Card Bank, the providers of the credit service to both Lowes and Home Depot and also named as a defendant in the suit, asking for a clarification of the no-interest promotion, he received a written response that stated, No payments are required on the amount of this promotional purchase during the term of the promotion. Payments are required, however, on purchases on existing balances, which are not on a No Payment Promotion, according to the suit.

The response from Monogram does not mention that the only way to pay off regular purchases is to first pay off all promotional purchases, according to the complaint.

Even when responding to consumers direct questions, our suit claims Monogram used indecipherable double-speak to cover up the deplorable structure of the promotion, said Sim Osborn, an attorney for the plaintiffs.