Who's made some late payments on their credit cards lately? Raise your hand.

If everyone reading this article has kept their hands down, either there are a lot of people out there lying, or a lot of people who don't want to feel like an idiot for raising their hand in front of a computer screen. According to CardTrak, an information portal on credit cards, the percentage of people late on their payments is the highest it's been in three years. In 2007, credit card companies made $18.1 billion dollars in penalty fees (for a little comparison, the year before, they made more than $17 billion in penalty fees.)

Fortunately, there is some hope out for anyone with an increasing history of late fees and decreasing credit score, according to John Ulzheimer. He founded Credit.com and wrote the book with the reassuring title, You're Nothing But a Number, and he said that while Americans' credit scores might be tanking, a credit score, in the end, is truly our friend.I admit, I was skeptical at first. Let's put it this way; a credit score is the last guest I'd invite to a party or want to go on a road trip with. In fact, if my credit score was my friend, I suspect I'd soon go to jail for running him over in my car, and I don't think a jury would convict me.

But look at it this way, Ulzheimer told me. Once you're able to get your payments in on time and back in the swing of things, with every passing month that negative information is becoming less powerful. "What the credit score is looking for is a change in credit management behavior," says Ulzheimer, "and so if there's an improvement, that helps you, even if that negative information is, several years later, still there on your report."

He added,"People like to rip on credit scoring almost mercilessly, but it doesn't take on prevailing opinions of credit," says Ulzheimer, who worked in the credit card scoring industry for several years at Equifax and then Fico and has 16 years' experience in the credit card industry. "It doesn't care if you fell into a subprime scam, or that you're living on government assistance. A credit score will look at that and make the same empirical value as anyone else."

So there is hope. If you feel like you've ruined your credit score for life, if you can turn things around, you won't always be paying for these bad times. And, by the way, if you really did raise your hand, you can lower it now.

Geoff Williams is primarily a business journalist for Entrepreneur magazine and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America.

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