Frightful Finance: These Credit Cards Will Bleed Your Cash

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Credit cards can be a powerful tool in the hands of debt-free consumers. For the millions of us who aren't as fortunate, the difference between a good card and a bad one could mean severe financial stress or even bankruptcy.

Think of bad cards as anchors, piling on new debt as you struggle to make ends meet. The terms and conditions paperwork for these beasts are like a nightmarish labyrinth of monthly charges, usurious minimums and loan-shark-like penalty interest rates wrapped in legalese. They'll knife your wallet and make off with the cash while you sleep.

Whereas good cards tend to lure consumers with rich perks and rewards points redeemable for gifts or points in an associated affinity program, bad cards tend to suck customers dry like bloodthirsty vampires. Here are four ways they take from their victims.

1. An Outrageous Interest Rate

According to the latest update from LowCards.com, the average advertised rate on consumer credit cards is 14.52 percent. Not exactly cheap, is it? No, but bad cards can and often do charge well over 20 percent in annual interest in hopes you'll remain in debt for years longer than you might have planned. The longer you pay, the more cash flow your lender collects.

Notable offender: The First Premier Bank Gold credit card charges a 36 percent interest rate, making it CardHub's choice as worst for consumers trying to rebuild their credit. Don't tell that to bank founder and CEO T. Denny Sanford, who once told Forbes that his bank's low-limit cards offer "a lifeline for credit-impaired people." I'll let you decide if a 36 percent interest rate sounds like a lifeline.

2. Layers of Fees

The worst cards don't just have an annual fee, they also have activation fees, monthly fees, transaction fees and more. For banks that offer these sorts of cards, fees (arguably) account for the possibility that you won't stick around long enough to pay a big chunk of interest. Whether that's a fair assumption is debatable. Either way, cards that deal in hyperbole while heaping on fees are dangerous to your wealth.

Notable offender: Take the Continental Finance Card. According to the terms and conditions, you'll pay $125 for the first year and $96 thereafter just to have a card that charges 29.99 percent interest on everything. You'll also pay a $5 monthly maintenance fee and $30 for an additional card.

3. Huge Charges That Erase the Benefits of Rewards

Getting a card that doesn't charge an annual fee is easy. Why charge a fee when lenders earn more by getting consumers to pile on debt? We're doing precisely that: Revolving consumer debt rose 3 percent to $839.1 billion in the second quarter -- no doubt aiding card issuers that are already on track to earn 9 percent more in 2014, according to data from researcher R. K. Hammer reported by LowCards.com.

Notable offender: Issuers nevertheless continue to introduce cards with hefty fees. CardHub's choice for worst rewards card is a good example. The Visa (V) Black Card from Barclays PLC (BCS) charges $495 for a handful of perks that aren't terribly distinctive. "There are a variety of cards available that offer more lucrative rewards bonuses, higher ongoing rewards earning rates and airport lounge access for hundreds of dollars less each year," CardHub writes in its review.

4. Bait-and-Switch Offers

Promises of "low introductory rates" are common among all sorts of lenders, not just card issuers. If it's easy to single out the credit card suppliers, it's because so many of them use the lure of cheap credit to hook customers in hopes they'll pile up debt on a big-ticket purchase they'll repay at much higher rates later.

Notable offender: You can tell a lot about a cheap credit offer by how long the introductory period lasts. For HSBC Holdings' (HSBC) licensed American DreamCard, it's just five months at 0 percenty. Afterward, you'll pay 14.99 percent to 21.99 percent, plus a $39 annual fee. But don't worry: Every dollar spent buys you a ticket to the so-called "American Dream" monthly lottery for cash prizes. Licensor American DreamCard claims to have paid out $1.345 million in cash prizes as of this writing. Surely you're due some of that, right?

Before You Apply for Your Next Card ...

When shopping for a good credit deal, knowledge is power. Don't settle for the first offer that comes in the mail. Check with sites whose job it is to review the fine print, such as CardHub and LowCards.com. What do others who have the card you're interested in say about it?

Also, check the terms and conditions before you apply. That's where you'll find the hidden fees and penalty interest rates the card issuer won't advertise in its mailer. And if you still have questions, call. Press for details. At least then you'll know what you're facing.

Now it's your turn to weigh in. Have you suffered from a lousy credit card? Warn your fellow readers in the comments section below.

Motley Fool contributor Tim Beyers has debts to repay and no position in any stocks mentioned. Find him on Twitter as @milehighfool. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. To read about our favorite high-yielding dividend stocks for any investor, check out our free report.
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