Image: Credit card © Mike Kemp, Getty Images

When it comes to reining in the abusive practices of financial institutions, there is a new sheriff in town. It's called the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and its sights seem focused on abuses within the credit card industry. In July, the agency compelled Capital One to pay $210 million to settle charges that customers were deceived. In September, it forced Discover to pay $214 million to more than 3.5 million customers over similar charges. And more recently, American Express has agreed to a $111.5 million settlement, of which $85 million will go directly to affected customers.

But the current crackdown on card issuers doesn't mean consumers should stop taking steps to protect themselves. In fact, there is much we can learn from these settlements to defend ourselves from similar abuses.

No. 1: Just say no. In the case of Capital One and Discover, the government alleges that these companies were pressuring cardholders to agree to payment protection products. According to a 2011 report from the federal government's General Accounting Office, "Fees for the nine largest credit card issuers' debt protection products range from $0.85 to $1.35 per month for every $100 of the outstanding balance." Yet consumers received just 21 cents in benefits for each dollar spent on these programs. The lesson: When it comes to payment protection programs, simply decline -- in no uncertain terms.

No. 2: Scrutinize your bill. A common thread in both the Capital One and Discover settlements was that customers had recurring monthly charges added to their credit card that they didn't understand. In addition to payment protection programs, these charges included credit monitoring and fraud protection services. While some cardholders noticed these additional fees and had them removed, the vast majority unwittingly continued to pay for these optional services, which they didn't want. Only by examining your bill line by line, each month, can you know when to fight questionable charges.

No. 3: Get everything in writing. In the case of American Express, the card issuer was accused of offering $300 in cash back, in addition to bonus points, in return for opening an account. In fact, the offer was for 22,500 bonus points which could then be redeemed for $300 cash back. Keep a copy of any offers you receive in the mail and apply for, and if you sign up for a credit card online, save an image of the offer that includes the fine print. Avoid applying over the telephone, as there is little recourse when a representative misstates an offer.

No. 4: Check your credit report. Another aspect of the American Express settlement was the accusation that it failed to report billing disputes properly to credit reporting agencies. Consumers should always scrutinize their credit reports. You are entitled to request a free report at least once every 12 months from each of the three major credit reporting agencies, as well as whenever you are denied credit. The only official site for these requests is AnnualCreditReport.com.

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No. 5: Fight back. Not many people are taking advantage of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau complaint process. For example, in June 2012, only 137 credit card complaints were received by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Adding your voice to their database can have an enormous impact. To file an official complaint with the CFPB, click here or call them at  855-411-2372.

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