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"Cash is the ultimate privacy protector," says Stephens. Most other payment mechanisms there is going to be a trail." But avoiding credit cards for the sake of privacy may present a quandary for some users: If they had the cash to pay for an item, they wouldn't need a credit card.

Representatives from the four top credit card issuers -- Bank of America, Citi, Chase and Wells Fargo -- declined to discuss details of how they use purchasing data internally. A spokeswoman from a banking industry trade group acknowledged that the practice is common.

"The issuing bank has the date of transaction, name of the merchant and the amount of the transaction that allows them to process that transaction," says Nessa Feddis, senior counsel and vice president of the American Bankers Association.

Editor's note: See updated version of this article: What you buy, where you shop can affect your credit Think of it as an electronic bug in your wallet.

Every time you make a purchase on a credit card or debit card, a record of that transaction is logged into a database of information collected by your credit card issuer.

Compu Credit agreed to a settlement that included crediting $114 million to the accounts of affected cardholders and paying a $2.4 million penalty.