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12 ways to keep your credit card hassle-free

by Peter Andrew

National Consumer Protection Week ran from March 4 through March 10, but the information, tips and actions it advocates are relevant the whole year round. At its core is a website that provides information, printable materials and links provided by more than 30 federal agencies and national organizations, and if you are worried about any consumer issues it's well worth a visit.

IndexCreditCards.com is of course mostly concerned with credit cards, so what are the key issues facing you as a cardholder, and what can you do to protect yourself?

Credit cards and identity theft

In late February the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) published its analysis of consumer complaints it received in 2011. Identity theft occupied the very top spot with 279,156 individual filings, although that's a tiny fraction of the 9 million Americans estimated by the Federal Trade Commission to be affected by this type of fraud each year.

The FTC says that last year the most common form of identity theft was that surrounding government documents and benefits fraud, but credit card fraud came in second, and accounted for 14 percent of complaints filed. Actually, this is less worrying than it sounds, because consumers can by law (providing they're not culpable) be responsible for only the first $50 of the consequent losses, and in practice credit card companies often waive even that.

However, at the very best, all victims of identity theft suffer significant stress and hassle, so it's well worth protecting yourself, as a minimum in the following five ways:

  1. Keep your credit cards in sight at all times when making a payment.
  2. Shred your old card statements and all documents that contain any personal information before consigning them to the recycling or trash.
  3. Take care when buying with a card online. Make sure the merchant's reputable: if you've never heard of it, check with the local Better Business Bureau, and Google the company name alongside "complaints." Also ensure that, on the payment page, the "http" in the web address field of your browser has changed to "https" (the "s" indicates a "secure" site).
  4. Don't fall for "phishing" scams. These often come in the form of emails or browser popups that appear to come from your bank or card issuer, urging you to visit a website to get more information, to validate your account or to claim a prize. Don't even click on the link. Instead, call the card company using the number on the back of your card and describe the suspicious email to them.
  5. Keep your computer's antivirus software up to date, and change your important passwords monthly.

Credit card debt that's manageable

The second most common complaint (180,928 of them) in that FTC list concerned debt collections, and all too often people find themselves at the tender mercies of a collection agency because they didn't manage their credit card debt sufficiently well. A few lucky people are wealthy enough -- or careful enough -- not to have to worry about actively monitoring their card accounts, but the rest of us really have to, even if it's only occasionally or during difficult times. So what can you do to avoid collectors?

  1. Periodically analyze your spending so that you know exactly where every cent is going. This could allow you to head off problems before it's too late.
  2. If your existing credit card debt is already a worry, use the information from your analysis to curb spending. Then use your savings to pay down your card balances.
  3. Create a debt-reduction plan that includes target dates for achieving your goals. Use credit card calculators to make sure your objectives are realistic, and if you're current on your payments, call your credit card companies to see if they'll reduce their rates for you.
  4. Pay down the plastic with the highest credit card interest rates first, and then work your way through the others until you've paid off the last one.
  5. If your credit score's still good or excellent, explore your options for balance transfer credit cards. The best balance transfer offers could give you a complete break from paying interest on your balances for up to 15 months or longer. Just make sure you use that time to pay down your debt, rather than to add to it!

Credit card debt that's not

If that advice is too late for you, and you already are -- or soon will be -- dealing with a collection agency, then you unfortunately have fewer options. Of course, that budget-planning advice still holds good, but really there are only two other obvious tips that may be helpful:

  1. Beware of so-called debt relief services. Many of them are cons, and even using legitimate ones can be a risky business that could seriously damage your credit report for a very long time. The FTC warns that it "has prosecuted more than a dozen companies that claimed to offer debt relief but lied about the cost or nature of their services."
  2. Don't feel you have to deal with this all on your own. Find a not-for-profit credit counselor who may be able to provide you with moral and practical support. Again, take care not to fall victim to one of the predatory organizations that claim to be not-for-profit, but that actually see you as a source of cash. A good starting point is the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.

It's sad, but today the price you pay for not becoming a victim is vigilance -- and not just for one week a year.

Published 03/12/12 (Modified 11/20/13)


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