Using credit cards has become downright dangerous for consumers. I'm not even referring to identity theft or fraud risks. I'm talking about the legal stuff that credit card companies can do to you. It's all in the agreement you signed to get the card.

It's been well documented in the media that credit card companies have been wielding their power over consumers in the last several months. Available credit has been reduced. Interest rates have been increased. Minimum monthly payments have been upped. And now new fees are ticking off consumers.

JPMorgan Chase is charging cardholders with balances $10 a month simply for the privilege of carrying a balance. (As if you're not already paying enough in interest by carrying a balance?) The scary thing about this is that it's perfectly legal, because the credit card agreements essentially say that the company can make any changes they want to your account and terms, and they don't even need to have a good reason to do it.

Make no mistake: Credit card companies are in business to make money. I don't fault them for it. I do fault them for being sneaky about their changes, and being very punitive to consumers. It used to be that only those who made mistakes (like a late payment) got punished. Now all credit card users seem to be getting punished.

A new law is coming to help protect consumers
from predatory and unfair practices, but it doesn't take effect until 2010. Word to the wise: Use your credit cards as little as possible to protect yourself. Don't expect the credit card companies to be fair or kind. They are neither.

Forensic accountant Tracy Coenen investigates corporate fraud and consumer scams, and is the author of Expert Fraud Investigation and Essentials of Corporate Fraud.

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