If you shop with a credit card rather than a debit card, you have more federal laws protecting your purchase. Plus, if you have a problem, you're not immediately out cash.

But be forewarned. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, regulator of national banks, logs 10 times the annual complaints about credit cards as it does the 800 complaints it gets for debit cards.

One reason for the larger number of credit-card complaints is that most people own more than one credit card, says Craig Stone, the OCC's deputy ombudsman. Billing disputes represent about half of complaints — most involving unauthorized transactions.

So how can you protect yourself while shopping this holiday season? Stone suggests:

Carefully review your credit card or debit card bill when it arrives. Keep all receipts. Be especially mindful of signing up for things that appear to be free, but where if you don't cancel within a specific period you're going to be charged. When taking advantage of your federal rights, always do it in writing. Include your name, address, account number and description of the problem. Keep good records and send documents certified mail.

The good news is that credit-card complaints this year are down, largely due to fewer complaints over "changes in terms," Stone says. Plus, his office has increased staff and expanded call center hours from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Central time. "Almost 25 percent, once they've contacted us, don't follow up with a written complaint," he says. The Council of Better Business Bureaus notes credit-card complaints ranked 10th on its list for 2005, down from No. 3 in 2004.

However, even if you do everything right and dispute your credit card or debit card, don't be surprised if the issuer simply sends you the merchant's response and drops the ball. Or, a bank card issuer might maintain that it made no error. End of story.

While your card dispute is pending, you're best off seeking the names of top management at the merchant with which you have a problem. Contact him or her about your dissatisfaction and ask for a credit.

If you have a dispute with your bank that goes unacknowledged, you might call the OCC customer assistance line at 1-800-613-6743 to complain. At least, obtain the proper contact at your bank. Expect faster action, though, if you contact that person directly.

Know your basic federal rights while shopping this season. Very generally, they are:

Credit cards

You can't be liable for more than $50 if your card is lost or stolen. You might be able to dispute a seller's charges if you're dissatisfied with your purchase. But beware: You must not pay the item off. You must first have made a good faith attempt to resolve the dispute with the seller. Plus, the charge must be for more than $50. You can dispute a charge under certain circumstances and temporarily withhold payment while it is investigated. To do this, you must write to the issuer at the correct address for billing inquiries. Plus, your letter must reach the issuer within 60 days after the first bill containing the error was mailed to you.

Online purchases

A retailer must ship an order within the time stated on its Web site. No time listed? It must be shipped within 30 days after receiving the order. If the company is unable to ship within the promised time, it must say so and give you an opportunity to agree to the delay or cancel the order and receive a prompt refund. Be sure to withhold payment on your credit card until the item arrives.

Debit cards

If you fail to notify your financial institution of a billing error in 60 days from the date a periodic statement is mailed to you, you may have no recourse. Notify the institution sooner, and your loss may range from nothing to $500, depending upon how fast you notify the bank. Within 10 days after you notify the bank, the bank is required to investigate an unauthorized charge. If the matter is still unresolved after 10 days, the bank must temporarily credit your account for at least a portion of the disputed amount and continue investigating — usually for 45 days. If no error ultimately is found, the institution can reclaim the money with a written explanation. You usually can't stop payment on a debit card even if an item you purchase is defective or not delivered.

Giving a gift card?

Although gift-card disclosures are expected to improve this season, they come with few federal consumer rights.

Encourage the recipient to take the card to the merchant, Stone suggests, and inquire about the life of the card and possible fees.

Better idea, according to many consumer advocates: Avoid gift cards.

Copyright (c) 2006 MarketWatch, Inc.