You probably discovered long ago that credit card companies aren't exactly friendly.

As the credit card business becomes more competitive, card companies are reducing basic interest rates (at least at the start) and making up for them by getting creative about how they separate you from your wallet. Here are some things to be aware of:

* Late charges: Whatever you do, make the check for a credit card bill as soon as it arrives. Companies are squeezing the grace periods ever smaller. Further, they may not credit your payment for days after it arrives. If that means it's late, you'll have a $29 late fee on your next bill.

* Over-limit charges: If your check is credited later than it should be, or if the $29 late fee puts you over your credit limit, you could be charged a $29 over-limit fee.

* Unauthorized charges: One credit card issuer automatically added $7.50 per month for credit insurance to each account. It was up to the customer to cancel it. Another offered a 'free' credit report, but thereafter customers were billed $59 for a three-year credit report service. When customers called the card company, they were referred to a credit reporting company and had to call them for a cancellation number. Then the customer had to call the card company again to report the number and get the charge removed.

* Convenience checks and account transfers. The card company offers a low rate to transfer accounts from other companies. When they do, however, some will add 3 percent of that amount to your bill as their fee.

* Other charges: They may include a charge for not using your card or for calling customer service.

* Raising basic rates: Some card companies scan your credit each month. If you are late with another company, they make a big increase in your interest rate. Self defense:

  • Pay your bill immediately when you get it.
  • Arrange a monthly payment date that is convenient for your personal cash flow.
  • Arrange to have the minimum deducted monthly from your checking account. When the bill arrives, you can pay more.
  • Limit your credit cards to two so keeping track of them will not be as difficult.
  • Never buy anything offered on the phone. When a plastic-proffering voice calls, say the magic words: 'Please take me off your call list.' Any company that calls you after you've made that request can be required to pay you as much as $500 in penalties. If it's a credit card company that does it, that $500 will be the only money you'll ever get from a card company!