If you're anything like me, you go through life having very cynical thoughts about this and that, followed by a little self-doubt, as you think, "Gee, that was probably too cynical." Well, according to the nice people at Consumer Reports magazine, if you suspect that the credit card industry is out to make as much as it can off you, you're right. Check out some highlights from an eye-opening November article titled, "Credit Cards: They really are out to get you":

  • If you're late paying a bill or you exceed your credit limit, you'll find that your interest rate gets hiked. The average penalty rate is around 24%, but some have been as high as 35%. As I detailed last year, "as of October 2004, these were the top penalty rates for some major card issuers, at least one of which has probably issued that card in your wallet: . MBNA [bought by Bank of America (NYSE:BAC)], 24.99%; JPMorgan Chase (NYSE:JPM), 26.74%; Morgan Stanley's (NYSE:MS) Discover, 24.99%; Capital One (NYSE:COF), 25.9%; and American Express (NYSE:AXP), 26.74%."
  • The attractive rates you're quoted may not last long. You might sign on for a 0% introductory rate, only to find that it gets hiked quickly and steeply. The fine print you probably didn't read may state that the issuer can do so, with 15 days' notice.
  • "Prior to 1978, the top 50 [credit card] issuers represented 50% of the credit card market, but by mid-2005, only five companies, American Express, Bank of America, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, and MBNA, controlled 65% of the market." And note -- since MBNA has just been gobbled up by Bank of America, it's just four companies now. This has consequences for us consumers, as fewer competitors often leads to less competition, which can mean higher costs for card users.
  • The grace period that cards give you in which to pay your bill before interest starts being charged has been shrinking. Don't assume you have a month to pay -- you probably don't.

You can learn a lot more surprising things about the credit card industry in our Credit Center, which also features guidance on how to manage your credit effectively. (And hey, if you're interested, we now also offer spiffy Motley Fool credit cards that are worth looking into.)

Your credit habits and record are a big deal -- being smart about credit can potentially save you tens of thousands of dollars.

Read about all things credit-related on our Consumer Credit/Credit Cards discussion board.

And finally, if you're mired in credit card debt, know that you're not alone and that you can dig yourself out. We can even help you, and we'd like to.

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Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian does not own shares of any companies mentioned in this article.