Credit card fees continue to climb at an appalling rate. Balance transfer fees have gone up by 300% in the past 12 months industry wide… and late-payment fees now average more than $30, up from around $10 in the late 1990s. But the most infuriating credit card fees are those that most cardholders do not even know about until they are imposed — this industry is notorious for burying important details in the fine print.

Some of the credit card industry’s most egregious tricks, traps and fees…

  • Fees for going over your credit limit. You use your card more than usual during a particular month, but it is not declined by a merchant, so you assume that you have stayed under your credit limit.
  • The trick: Most credit card issuers no longer decline purchases when cardholders exceed their credit limits. Instead, they allow the transactions to go through, then they charge the cardholder an over-the-limit penalty of up to $39. The credit card issuer also may use this as an excuse to increase the cardholder’s interest rate to a “default rate,” potentially 30% or higher.

    Self-defense: Call your credit card issuer (the toll-free number is on the back of your credit card) and request that any charges above your credit limit be declined. Credit card companies do not legally have to agree to decline purchases above your credit limit, although most will do so if asked.

    Also ask if the card issuer can provide balance alerts via E-mail or cell-phone text message if your balance nears your limit. Most credit card issuers now offer this service.

  • Fishing for late fees. You pay your credit card bill on the first of the month, same as always. Perhaps you even use an automatic bill-paying service so that the payment is withdrawn directly from your bank account each month like clockwork — yet you are still charged a late fee of $30 or more.
  • The trick: Credit card companies have been quietly shortening their “grace periods” (the time between the end of the billing cycle and the date that the payment is due) from 25 or 30 days down to only 20 in some cases. Even though you paid your bill on the same day as always, this now counts as late.

    Self-defense: Pay bills as soon as they arrive, preferably on-line to avoid the risk that your payment will be lost or delayed in the mail.

  • Two-tiered interest rates. One of your credit card providers offers you an attractive interest rate on balance transfers. If you shift your balance from another card to this one, you will be charged only a minimal amount — perhaps even as low as 0% — on the debt. How can you lose?
  • The trick: If you transfer a balance to the account, 100% of your payments on this account will be applied to the low-rate, transferred balance until it is completely paid off. Meanwhile, your existing debt on this card, and any new purchases, will rack up interest charges at your standard rate, which might be considerably higher. Because you are not paying down this higher-rate debt, it compounds quickly and the amount you owe remains high.

    Self-defense: Transfer a balance to a credit card only if you have no existing balance on that new card and do not intend to use the card for additional purchases at least until the transfer is paid off.

  • Phantom interest charges. You are about to leave on an extended vacation and do not want to worry about making credit card payments during the trip, so before departing you pay the full amount that your credit card statement says you owe. When you return from your trip more than a month later, you discover that your payment did not bring the account balance to $0 — and you have been charged a late payment fee of as much as $39.
  • The trick: Credit card accounts accrue interest between the day a statement is mailed and the day the cardholder pays the bill (unless the account balance was paid in full the previous month). Those few days of interest charges might amount to only a couple of dollars or less, but credit card companies consider the tiny balance enough to trigger late-payment penalties.

    Self-defense: If you wish to pay off a credit card account completely, do not just pay the amount on the bill if the account is accruing interest charges. Call the card company and ask how much you need to pay as of five days down the road in order to bring the account down to zero. (The five-day lead time should give your check time to reach the payment center.) If you pay the bill on-line, ask how much you need to pay today or tomorrow.

  • Overseas usage fees. You use your Visa or MasterCard extensively during a vacation to a foreign country because it is simpler than converting your dollars to the local currency. When you receive your next account statement, you discover that you have been charged extra fees amounting to more than $100.
  • The trick: In addition to the 1% fee that Visa and MasterCard charge for foreign purchases, the bank that issued your card is likely to add an additional fee, typically 2%, for a total 3% fee for foreign purchases. With the high cost of foreign travel, this could easily become a big chunk of money.

    Self-defense: Call your card issuers before your trip and ask about their fees for foreign use. If all of your cards charge hefty fees, consider applying for a Capital One Visa or Capital One MasterCard. Capital One does not impose a “foreign exchange fee” — and it absorbs the 1% Visa/MasterCard fee rather than passing it along to customers (800-695-5500, www.capitalone.com).

  • “Convenience” checks. Your credit card issuer sends you blank checks and suggests that you write yourself a loan.
  • The trick: The checks probably do not make it clear that this loan will be treated as a cash advance, possibly with ultra-steep interest rates in excess of 20% plus a cash-advance fee of 3% to 5% and no grace period.

    Self-defense: Call the credit card issuer that sent the checks, and ask about the details of loan terms before taking them up on the offer. If you determine that the checks are treated as a cash advance, steer clear.