Beware of changes in your credit accounts

LOS ANGELES Credit card companies are slipping through all sorts of changes before a new federal law takes effect in February.

Dr. Carin Van Gelder was furious when she opened her credit card bill and found out the interest rate on her MasterCard had suddenly shot up, even though she always paid on time.

"It went up to almost 20 percent and there was no reason," said Van Gelder. "I couldn't imagine why there was a reason."

The /*Consumer Reports National Research Center*/ survey found a high rate of credit card complaints. Fourteen percent of people surveyed had their credit limits lowered recently; 29 percent were hit with new fees or penalties; and 38 percent said their interest rates had been hiked.

"Our survey found that fewer people are satisfied with credit card companies than with almost any other service we assess," said Consumer Reports Editor in Chief Kim Kleman.

After several hours on the phone and threatening to cancel the card, Van Gelder successfully got her interest rate back down to 12 percent.

"Calling up and complaining can be very effective. According to our survey, about half the time people got at least some of what they wanted," said Kleman.

If negotiating doesn't work, look for a card with better terms.

Consumer Reports says you can often find better credit cards from professional organizations, such as teachers associations and credit unions and from community and regional banks.

"There are now often one-time fees on balance transfers, so before you switch to a new card, make sure you check that," said Kleman.

Also, check if the new card carries an annual fee. That kind of charge is making an unwelcome comeback.

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