Increasing our collection of credit cards is as easy as opening unsolicited mail. But using those cards requires caution if we want to keep our credit score at the high end of the rating scale. Consumers need to watch for changes in payment terms, acceleration of due dates, and inevitable increases in interest rates and penalties. It's also prudent to be aware of how our accounts are managed, and understand how credit ratings can be manipulated unjustly. Although the unregulated, excessive, interest rates should alone make the credit card industry sufficiently profitable, it seems there is an inclination for financial institutions to charge us as much as traffic will bear.

Compare this to masked gun-slingers of the untamed Wide West when bandits strong-armed their withdrawals from bank depositors and rode out of town with their profits in money bags slung over saddles. Today, the outrage of local victims should focus on the banks that change the small print on their billing statements at whim, create a maze of bureaucratic administrators to assist with the processing of information that goes to the rating bureaus, and then entice us with opportunities for more chances to be charged without informing us of the prevailing hidden stratagem that works against us as relentlessly as the desert wind-shifted sands. Hidden charges are not printed on warning labels.

My introduction to the predatory system began when I paid my property tax on-line. I inadvertently used a low-limit card forgetting that, since moving into San Bernardino County, my property tax no longer qualifies as low. My error compelled a phone call from the third-party agent used by my bank to out-source bookkeeping services. It set into motion an automatic series of money-making opportunity fees for the bank.

The mistake was corrected easily. I authorized a wire-transfer to pay the over-limit amount. The agent used tricky tactics: They charged me a fee for the over-limit transaction although my wire-transfer kept the account within approved limits. They charged interest on the over-limit amount from the date the limit breach would have occurred had I not covered it immediately. And they sent me a letter saying they would cancel my credit card if I didn't pay the over-limit amount. It was dated before I got the phone call when I made the wire transfer and of course, it was from a department other than the customer service number the bank provides. Then they cancelled my credit card.

All of these charges to my account were reversed after I devoted two full days to making phone calls. The first person I spoke to said she could reverse the interest but not the fees and it would take her manager's approval to reinstate my credit card. She explained that my bank allows her agency to determine the reason they use to close an account; but it takes approval from someone above her pay grade to reinstate it. Next, her manager agreed that I would have my card reinstated. At my urging, she agreed to send a letter to the rating bureaus to nullify the one they sent (without advising me) when they closed my account. The third person I spoke to would remove the fees if his manager approved the transaction.

In the old days, when there were tighter reins on the financial industry (but after the time when money was held in the bank vaults in anticipation of the gun slinging bandits) this would have been handled differently. The party accepting the credit card, e.g. the Tax Collector, would have determined that the card number submitted had an insufficient credit line for the transaction, and would make an offer for me to submit another card number. If the transaction slipped through, the bank would have discovered the error. The bank would then evaluate my credit rating, and finding it to be sound, would increase my credit limit to cover the current charges.

The information sent to rating bureaus is the most problematic. Credit ratings determine what interest rates are charged on all outstanding credit card balances and on future loans. With risks like that, our best bet is to pay off balances ASAP and watch out for junk mail.