Almost every day we are involved in some sort of financial transaction, and it is more important now than ever to take proper steps to protect your credit and identity.

In addition to individually protecting your credit, several pieces of legislation have been introduced in Congress to provide consumers with more bargaining power and protection against credit card companies.

I have co-sponsored the Credit Cardholders' Bill of Rights, which would rein in certain credit card company practices by:

*Requiring card companies to give cardholders 45 days notice of any interest rate increases.

*Prohibiting card companies from unilaterally changing the terms of their contract with a cardholder.

*Giving cardholders the right to cancel their card and pay off their existing balance at the existing interest rate and repay-ment schedule if they get hit with an interest rate hike.

*Preventing card companies from retroactively increasing inter-est rates on the existing balance for reasons unrelated to the cardholder's behavior with that card.

*Prohibiting card companies from charging interest on debt that is paid on time during a grace period, which prevents the so-called "double-cycle billing" practice.

This piece of legislation has been debated in the House Financial Services Committee, and I will continue to monitor the bill's progress and support its passage. In addition, here are some suggestions you can use to ensure you are being a savvy consumer:

Know Your Credit Score

The Fair Credit Reporting Act requires that the major credit reporting companies provide you with a free copy of your credit report, at your request, every 12 months. You can request that copy at www.freecreditreport.com or call 1 (877) 322-8228. Please know that this is the only authorized website used for obtaining your free credit report.

Avoiding Credit Card Fraud and Identity Theft

Credit and charge card fraud costs cardholders and issuers hundreds of millions of dollars each year. The Federal Trade Commission estimates that as many as 9 million Americans have their identities stolen each year. There are several steps you can take to protect your identity.

Don't:

*Lend your card(s) to anyone.

*Leave cards or receipts lying around.

*Sign a blank receipt. When you sign a receipt, draw a line through any blank spaces above the total.

*Write your account number on a postcard or the outside of an envelope.

*Give out your account number over the phone unless you're making the call to a company you know is reputable. If you have questions about a company, check it out with your local consumer protection office or Better Business Bureau.

U.S. Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Corpus Christi, represents South Texas in the U.S. House of Representatives. Readers may contact him at (202) 225-7742.