It's no surprise that credit card companies have used the economic downturn to sell more credit-protection products.

Consumers are in risk-avoidance mode and card companies are on the hunt for revenue after last year's credit reform legislation hacked away at some profitable fees. But it turns out that these products may have been forced on some cardholders who didn't even want them. A lawsuit filed last week by Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson against Discover card alleges that the company used questionable telemarketing practices to sell identity theft and payment protection products to consumers without their consent.

Card companies using dirty tactics to sell these products -- designed to give consumers peace of mind -- is one issue. But are these products worth the money in the first place? The resounding word from consumer advocates is "no,'' because there are ways consumers can protect themselves without forking over money for costly services.

"They're all absolute junk and if you tried to sell them at a store ... nobody would buy them," Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director for U.S. PIRG, said.

Let's start with payment protection, which allows you to suspend payments during hardships such as job loss, disability or natural disaster as well as in times of celebration -- think marriage, childbirth or a new job. While the protection sounds cheap when it's advertised as costing 89 cents per $100 balance, if your balance is $5,000, that adds up to $534 per year -- $534 that could go toward paying down your card balance or building an emergency savings account. Consumer watchdogs also say that the fine-print exclusions make the pricey protection less valuable.

The lawsuit also involves services that monitor your credit for signs of identity theft. These services, which cost around $15 per month, are totally unnecessary. By law, you can request a free annual credit report once a year from each of the three major credit bureaus. Using the site www.annualcreditreport.com, order one report from one bureau every four months, search for unfamiliar accounts, and you've just created your own free credit monitoring service.

A credit freeze law in Minnesota allows you to go even one step further to protect your identity. To give his 89-year-old mother peace of mind, Darryl Dahlheimer had her freeze her credit report, preventing lenders from opening new accounts unless she "thaws" it with a PIN number.

"It's like changing the locks on the door," said Dahlheimer, program director for LSS Financial Counseling Service. If you've been a victim of identity theft, this is a free service. Otherwise, it's $5 per lock per credit bureau, or $15. It costs the same to unlock it. But it's cheaper than paying a monthly fee for a company to supposedly keep an eye on your credit.

Also remember that it's in the card company's best interest to spot fraudulent charges whether you pay for a service or not. The law states that consumers aren't responsible for more than $50 in fraudulent credit card purchases, and many card companies have zero liability policies. I've had card companies (including Discover) call me to make sure my card wasn't stolen after I made purchases that diverged from my typical spending patterns. And I didn't pay them a dime to be on the lookout.

Finally, there are the credit-score trackers, which sell you unlimited access to your credit score. While it's important to have a general idea of your score because it's an indicator of your credit health, you don't need to know precisely what it is at every moment.

If you are compelled to keep track, there's also the issue of which score you're buying with these products. Most lenders use FICO scores to determine whether you're a good risk. "Problem is, the companies doing the most aggressive type of advertising are not selling the FICO credit score," John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education at Smartcredit.com, said.

Househunters and car shoppers who want to check their score before applying should find out which score their lender would use and buy that score once.

Say you'd never buy one of these products. You still can't let your guard down. "Get it in writing" has always been the smart-money advice for consumers being hounded by pushy salespeople.

But Swanson alleges that some consumers bulldozed by Discover were enrolled in these programs just by agreeing to get paperwork in the mail. Stop with the Minnesota Nice. If a company initiates a phone call offering you services you don't want, adamantly say no. If the telemarketer persists, hang up the phone. Then ask yourself if this is a company with which you want to do business.

And never let a month go by without scouring your bill line-by-line. Sadly, it's what we need to do to protect ourselves, not just from outright thieves, but from companies that lose sight of their customers.

Kara McGuire • 612-673-7293 or kmcguire@startribune.com