For years, college students were an easy target for credit card companies. They’d set up tables on campuses from coast to coast giving away T-shirts, hats and other trinkets to lure teenagers into applying for their first credit cards.

It didn’t matter that a big percentage of those students had no income — they were approved for cards nonetheless. For many students, that new plastic came with a surprise: After using the credit card, you had to pay the bill that followed. And if you didn't pay it all off, interest — sometimes a lot of it — got tacked on.

The game changed in 2009 with the federal CARD Act, which required a cosigner for anyone under 21 unless they could demonstrate they had an income. And campus giveaways to promote signing up for credit cards were banned. But credit card companies have simply invented new tricks.

Solicitations are more likely to come by mail these days, and some credit card companies now consider student loans as income. (Student loans sometimes include money beyond tuition and room and board, which some companies count as income rather than funds for books and living expenses.)

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is developing a "Safe Student Account Scorecard" to help students better understand and evaluate financial offerings. The tool should be available later this year. For now, the agency warns students they shouldn’t be swayed by cards bearing their university's logo. Relationships between financial institutions and educational ones typically are more about the school getting paid for the use of its name and logo than anything else.

When and how to get your first piece of plastic

If you're considering getting a card, follow these tips.

1. Do it before you go to college. Rather than wait for an offer to be dangled in front of you, shop around for the best offer available. Check with the financial institutions your family uses. Credit unions, in particular, often offer better values than other companies.

2. Look for a card that has no annual fee, has some sort of reward for use (such as points, miles or cash back) and has a reasonable interest rate — under 20 percent. Consumers with the best financial track records will get interest rates below 10 percent.

3. Consider a debit card. If you want to stay clear of credit but still use a card to make purchases online and elsewhere, consider a debit card that carries the logo of one of the major issuers like Visa or Mastercard. With a debit card, you spend only what you have, and you avoid the debt-plus-interest pitfall of credit cards.

Debit cards have their own issues, mainly fees. Given the tightening of the rules around promoting credit cards to college students, it’s not surprising that financial institutions and colleges have shifted their focus to debit cards. Read the fine print to see how much it will cost you to use the card. Will you have to pay every time you use it at an ATM, no matter the network? Does it cost anything to check your balance? It shouldn't.

Plastic is not all bad, and learning how to use it responsibly is part of growing up. Evaluate your choices, and decide whether you're ready to take on the possibility of debt. If so, do your homework to find a card to suit your needs and won’t take you for a ride.

Mitch Lipka is a consumer columnist and product safety expert. He was the 2011 recipient of the "Kids Best Friend Award" from Kids In Danger for his commitment to reporting on children’s product safety.