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Compu Credit agreed to a settlement that included crediting 4 million to the accounts of affected cardholders and paying a .4 million penalty.

The company did not admit any wrongdoing in the settlement. The recent credit crunch has placed greater emphasis on using the data to predict who may be a higher credit risk.

They are going to know where the person used the card." Keeping track Tracking is conducted for four primary reasons: Massive databases of information Millions of credit card users receive monthly statements detailing their spending during the billing cycle: The standard information provided includes the date of a purchase, the place of the purchase, including the name of the merchant, city, state, amount of the purchase and a transaction reference number.

Every transaction processed by the card networks (Visa and Master Card) is assigned a merchant category code (MCC), a four-digit number that denotes the type of business providing a service or selling merchandise. For dating and escort services, it's 7273, and for massage parlors, it's 7297. The MCC is used, for example, to restrict health care spending on health care-related credit and debit cards.

Shopping at large supermarkets or wholesale clubs -- which offer a variety of product lines -- may also keep some purchases private.

Other tips: Spread purchases that may indicate risky behavior over several credit cards to avoid triggering an alert for a single issuer.

It's not only your retail purchases, but your online purchases. Some people pay for their utilities with credit cards." Federal financial privacy laws (Regulation P) prohibit credit card issuers from sharing your personal and payment information with third parties not affiliated with the issuer (except under court order or when fraud is involved).

Banks must send annual copies of their privacy policies to cardholders, but the law does not govern what the issuer does with payment information internally.

She says specific information about items purchased (that you bought a gallon of milk, for example) is not included in the data transferred from the merchant.

"As a general rule, the specific transaction information is not transmitted to the issuing bank.

"Cash is the ultimate privacy protector," says Stephens. Most other payment mechanisms there is going to be a trail." But avoiding credit cards for the sake of privacy may present a quandary for some users: If they had the cash to pay for an item, they wouldn't need a credit card.

For others, the convenience of using a credit card over other payment methods far outweighs the potential privacy concerns.

Your credit card issuer may be taking note -- and making decisions about your creditworthiness based on your purchasing behavior.

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