Despite high-profile media attention, the odds of having your credit or debit card number stolen by crooks remains at historically low levels. That said, it's always good to know what to do in case lightening does strike and someone fraudulently uses your card. Left unchecked, they might try to run up bills, drain your checking account or worse -- steal your identity.
Here are actions to take if this happens to you, as well as preventive measures that can lessen your risk going forward:
Call the card issuer. First, contact the bank or credit union that issued your card. You'll find a toll-free number on the back of your card, on your billing statement or at the company's website. The issuer will closely monitor your account for odd behavior and may either reissue a card with a new CVV (card verification code) number or issue an entirely new card number.
Be sure to change any related passwords or PIN numbers and notify companies that have automatic payments tied to the account to make sure you don't miss a payment. Also keep a log of all calls, letters and emails you have with your card issuer about the fraud -- this will be helpful if you need to file a claim or police report.
If thieves also gain access to additional sensitive personal information such as your Social Security number and address (for example if your entire wallet was stolen), you should escalate your fraud precautions, as follows:
Contact credit bureaus. Contact one of the three major credit bureaus, Equifax (888-766-0008), Experian (888-397-3742) or TransUnion (800-680-7289), and place an Initial Fraud Alert on your credit file for 90 days if you suspect you have been, or are about to be, a victim of identity theft. Whichever bureau you contact will notify the other two to do the same. If you wish, you can renew these fraud alerts each quarter, free of charge.
If you determine that you actually have suffered identity theft, you can also file an Extended Fraud Alert, which will stay on your reports for seven years. To do so, you'll need to submit an Identity Theft Report, as outlined below.
Placing a fraud alert entitles you to one free credit report from each bureau. Although the alert makes it harder for someone to open new credit accounts in your name, it won't necessarily prevent them from using existing accounts. That's why it's important to close compromised accounts and to carefully review your credit reports for errors, fraudulent activity or suspicious credit inquiries from an unfamiliar source. Just be aware that posting a fraud alert could delay your own ability to obtain new credit.
You might want to order new credit reports every month or two for the next year or so as a precaution. Also, remember that by law, you can order one free credit report a year from each bureau through the government-authorized AnnualCreditReport.com, whether or not you suspect fraud.
File theft report. If you determine that someone has indeed stolen from your account or that you are otherwise the victim of identity theft (i.e., they used your information to open new accounts, etc.), you'll need to file a detailed Identity Theft Report with the police. The Federal Trade Commission's Recover From Identity Theft site contains step-by-step instructions for completing and filing the report with local, state and federal law-enforcement agencies.
You'll also need to send copies of the report -- by certified mail, return requested -- to the credit bureaus and companies whose accounts were impacted. They then have 15 days to request further information or documentation to help verify the theft. You can also file a complaint with the FTC, which will enter the information into a secure online database shared by thousands of civil and criminal law-enforcement authorities worldwide.
Financial liability. Under federal law, your maximum liability for unauthorized use of a credit card is $50; if the charges were made after you report the card lost or stolen, you have no liability. In addition, many credit card networks provide "zero liability" protection if you promptly report the loss.
Liability for debit card losses is slightly different. Debit card transactions that you signed for (called "offline" transactions) typically are protected by "zero liability" policies similar to those for credit cards. If you report the loss within two business days, your maximum liability is $50 -- although most banks and credit unions will waive this fee. That limit rises to $500 after two days; and if you don't notify your financial institution within 60 days of receiving a statement showing unauthorized transactions, you could be liable for the entire amount -- although most financial institutions limit your liability to $50.
Be aware that some types of PIN-based transactions, where you enter your PIN at the retailer's kiosk or an ATM instead of signing a receipt, may be excluded from your card-issuer's zero-liability coverage, depending on which PIN debit network is used to complete the transaction. Ask your bank or credit union about its policy for both types of debit card transactions.
- Make sure your anti-virus and anti-spyware software is current and use only secure websites.
- Never provide personal information by mail, phone or email unless you initiated the communication.
- Create strong, randomly patterned passwords and change them regularly.
- Shield keypads from the eyes of "shoulder surfers" at stores and ATMs.
- Review receipts for accuracy before signing and retain them for your records.
- Shred paperwork and receipts containing personal or account information once they're no longer needed.
- Lock up documents with sensitive information at home and work.
- See my previous blog, Make Sure You Are Cyber Secure for more tips.
- StaySafeOnline.org, a website filled with tips for safe Internet use, created by the National Cyber Security Alliance.
- The FBI's Be Crime Smart page, which highlights the latest scams and tells you how to report crime and fraud.
- My employer, Visa Inc., offers VisaSecuritySense.com, which contains tips on preventing fraud online, when traveling, at retail establishments and ATMs, deceptive marketing practices, and more.
- The Federal Trade Commission's ID Theft, Privacy and Security page, which contains extensive information about identity theft, privacy and information security.
Having your accounts stolen from can be a frightening and frustrating experience. Just make sure you act quickly to minimize the damage and prevent future violations.
This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a legal, tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to you and about your individual financial situation.