(MONEY Magazine) – Spurred, perhaps, by last fall's tough talk from President Bush and members of Congress about high credit-card rates, consumers are finally starting to wake up. ''Public rate sensitivity has exploded,'' says Robert McKinley of RAM Research, a credit-card consulting firm in Frederick, Md. ''The pressure on issuers is at an all-time high.'' RAM reports that there was no growth last year in the overall number of customers at the top 10 card issuers, most of which impose rates of 18.9% and above (see the table, below right). Meanwhile, the number of accounts at those banks offering 16% rates and below increased by an average of 17%. Even so, most cardholders continue to pay the top rates. The big 10 still account for 48% of all outstanding accounts, as they have for the past five years. Despite the clamor for relief, not one of the big 10 has dropped its basic rate. At best, a few major issuers are offering special deals to prized customers -- typically those who have solid credit ratings, make timely payments and run up big bills. But not all these advantageous arrangements are advertised. For example, last year when First Chicago knocked three percentage points off the rate that it charges its ''impeccable'' customers, it did not publicize the move and even refused to define impeccable. One big card player is actually cutting rates. Chemical Bank, which will become the nation's seventh largest issuer when it completes its merger with Manufacturers Hanover Trust, is dropping the rate for holders of Manufacturers' fixed-rate Visas and MasterCards from 19.8% to 17.8%. At the same time, however, Chemical is changing the rules on its variable-rate card to boost rates later. While dropping its minimum rate a hair, from 17.9% to 17%, it is increasing the spread -- the amount it tacks on to the prime rate to determine the card's rate -- from 9.9 percentage points to 11.4. As a result, Chemical's variable rate will climb more quickly when the prime rate moves up again. To further complicate the search for value, major issuers are increasingly resorting to inconspicuous ways of bleeding cardholders -- most notably, raising fees or tinkering with the methods used to calculate finance charges. Sears, for example, no longer caps the service charge for Discover card cash advances at $10. People who borrow more than $1,000 will pay a fee of 1.5% of the amount, with no cap. Thus a $2,000 cash advance will cost you $30; worse yet, that comes on top of the 19.8% finance charge. So if you want to lower your credit-card costs -- still one of the most effective ways of saving money -- you must shop carefully. Start by checking the smaller issuers, including the ones listed on this page, which tend to offer exceptional terms. Also, always ask whether there are any special, unadvertised deals that are appropriate for you. And once you get your card agreement, read the fine print for sneaky terms and conditions that can bite you unexpectedly.

CHART: NOT AVAILABLE CREDIT: Source: RAM Research, Frederick, Md. CAPTION: IGNORING THE CALL FOR LOWER-COST CARDS Congress and the President have called for lower credit-card rates, but the big issuers listed below have hung tough. Not one has cut its finance charge and, so far, the group has seen no measurable loss of market share.