Fewer consumers were late in paying their credit card bills in the third quarter of this year than in the second, despite fears of higher delinquencies after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

According to data from the American Bankers Association released on Thursday,  the number of credit card accounts that were at least 30 days overdue during the quarter fell to 3.77 percent of all accounts from 3.93 percent in the second quarter, but still rose from 3.21 percent a year ago. 

"Many probably expected higher delinquencies, given the terrorist attacks and the economic downturn,'' ABA chief economist James Chessen said in a statement. 

"But there were many factors that helped brighten the financial picture for consumers last quarter, including a steep decline in gas prices, the income tax rebate and high levels of mortgage refinancing,'' he added. 

Dollar Amounts Rise

Based on the dollar amount of outstanding credit card debt, however, delinquencies rose to 4.45 percent in the third quarter from 4.13 percent in the prior quarter and 3.93 percent a year ago. 

"The bottom line is consumers were in a good position to pay down debt last quarter, with the lowest debt service burden since 1999,'' Chessen said. 

The ABA's composite delinquency ratio for closed-end consumer installment loans, including car, home equity and personal loans, fell to 2.40 percent from 2.51 percent in the second quarter, but was up from 2.32 percent a year ago. 

The number of late payments on home equity lines of credit increased in the third quarter to 0.70 percent from 0.64 percent in the second quarter. Closed-end home equity loan delinquencies rose to 1.24 percent from 1.18 percent. 

Direct auto loan delinquencies increased to 2.56 percent in the third quarter from 2.52 percent in the second quarter, while late indirect auto loan payments fell to 2.45 percent from 2.60 percent.

Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.