"Used properly, credit is an excellent tool. Used carelessly, it'll bury you." Those sage words of wisdom are found on prominent display in the Fool's Credit Center. Proper debt management can be the key to a solid financial foundation, and is a topic to which a wealth of information has been devoted. Anyone struggling to get a handle on her debt may want to pay the site a visit, especially in light of a new consumer report, which shows credit card fees continue to skyrocket.

The extensive study, commissioned by a California-based consumer advocacy group, compared the nuts and bolts of more than 140 cards from 45 different issuers. The result? A sharp, and none-too-surprising, rise in all those card-associated fees. Record-low interest rates have allowed consumers to pay down their high-interest credit card balances through home equity lines of credit and the like, forcing card issuers to recoup lost revenues with fee increases. Last year, credit card fees climbed to $11 billion from only $1.7 billion in 1996.

Been late by even a single day on a card payment recently? If so, a late-payment fee was likely assessed. Late fees have been on the rise in recent years and now top out at an exorbitant $39. This fee, though, is likely modest compared to higher interest charges that will now begin to accrue under a "penalty rate."

According to the study, nearly one-third of all banks will impose this higher rate, which has climbed to an average of 25.88%, after the first late payment. Hopefully, the punitive rates won't push the balance beyond your credit limit, or else over-limit fees will also be added to the tab.

To be fair, issuers should be compensated for higher default risks, and making timely payments is completely within a consumer's control. Of deeper concern is the practice of "Universal Default," whereby banks can scour a cardholder's credit history for instances of late payments, not to the card itself, but to other creditors. Under this deplorable and privacy-skirting practice, card companies can raise someone's rates for missing cable or telephone bills, even if card payments are routinely paid on time.

According to cardweb.com, which is full of illuminating statistics, consumer debt has risen to $2 trillion, and one-fifth of all consumer purchases are made with credit cards. The average American has tallied $2,300 of card debt, and only 40% of cardholders pay off their balances monthly.

From strictly a business standpoint, the burgeoning industry represents tremendous recurring-revenue potential for issuers such as Citigroup (NYSE:C), Capital One Financial (NYSE:COF), and MBNA (NYSE:KRB), home of our own Motley Fool credit card. Prudent investors should analyze the firms from both a business and a consumer perspective. Credit cards can be both beneficial, as well as dangerous, something that can also be said of the companies themselves.

Check out our Credit Center for information and help with your credit situation.

Fool contributor Nathan Slaughter received 14 credit card solicitations in yesterday's mail, above the 52-week moving average. He owns none of the companies mentioned.