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A credit-card headache that's easily avoided

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In the wake of falling fees, it's time to reassess your credit cards.

The average card carries half a dozen fees — same as last year, according to a new report from CreditCards.com analyzing 100 major cards. But some charges are becoming less common and others are easier to avoid.

"A trend toward fewer credit-card fees is obviously a good thing for consumers, but it also shows how crazy competitive the credit-card marketplace is," said Matt Schulz, senior analyst for CreditCards.com.

Among other changes, 16 cards have dropped foreign transaction fees and 19 have eliminated charges for paper copies of past statements. Four fewer cards in the study now charge for returned payments, and three eliminated balance transfer fees. Twenty-five now carry annual fees, down from 26 last year.

The Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009 eliminated most of the "gotcha" fees consumers encountered, said Linda Sherry, director of national priorities for advocacy group Consumer Action. Most of those left are easily avoided with smart shopping habits and good financial management.

"You don't need to be concerned with fees as long as you follow a few simple rules," she said. "Pay on time, don't go over your limit."

The most prevalent fees are still for late payments and cash advances, respectively charged on 99 and 98 of the cards in the CreditCards.com report. Both may be easily avoided, Schulz said.

Issuers are particularly apt to be forgiving on late fees, he said, a shift that cardholders may find appealing. During the second quarter of 2016, 4 percent of the consumer complaints to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau about credit cards involved late fees.

"Although consumers understand why late fees are assessed to their accounts, they often feel that fees should not be applied when an automatic payment failed or when a billing statement did not arrive in a timely manner," the CFPB's monthly snapshot says.

The three Discover cards in the CreditCards.com assessment automatically waive the fee on a cardholder's first late payment. Even if your issuer doesn't have that policy, another CreditCards.com survey this year found 89 percent of cardholders successfully got a late fee nixed just by asking.

"We've seen that if you're late with a payment, there's a good chance you can get that waived," Schulz said.